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.

11635

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

Portnoy ain’t the only one complaining

Heyyy there, everything’s normal and nothing to see here!

The president has COVID-19 and continues to recklessly endanger lives, knowingly congregating with his constituents after testing positive for the virus. I think we’re up to nine infections traced from the same “super-spreader” event at the Rose Garden, at which we know for certain he was COVID-19 positive. The entire administration’s a circus, the GOP serial liars, and we cannot trust a goddamn thing they feed us.

Fantastic, thanks! And you?

I don’t really talk politics here. Vitriol spewed on social media leaves me so drained I prefer to keep Bluestalking a forum for books and salacious gossip. Not even a fraction of what I’m reading or writing or watching or thinking about makes it here as it is. Imagine if I spouted off about politics all the time. I’d write about nothing else.

The stresses of 2020 are taking a toll; my country is under seige from within and I am literally worried sick. Each day brings new shocks, and internalizing all this has left me and everyone I know shattered, complete nervous wrecks. I’ve let self care slide and didn’t realize how bad it had gotten until I turned off the news and looked within.

Despite a respectful fear of the virus, I did go to my doctor, who took blood and ran a panel. I’m aware all isn’t quite right. A couple of readings came back concerning enough she’s prescribed medication and requested re-testing in a month.

I’m not saying I have anything fatal; I am saying all the insomnia and constant flood of adrenaline and cortisol may have contributed to a disorder yet to be diagnosed. The doctor is targeting the testing, narrowing it to a couple of suspects, and I won’t be surprised if she sends me to specialists.

No doom and gloom. Chin up! I’m following doctor’s orders, overhauling the way I look at my health, and adjusting priorities bit by bit. I’ve grown cantankerous in middle age, grumpy and difficult, but I’m not completely stupid.

Shut it.

Outside of politics and health worries, my world is – SPOILER – almost entirely literary-focused. Aside from book reviewing miscellany, I’m working on bigger projects for two specific authors: Philip Roth and Camus. There’s a huge bio of Roth coming out next April I’m dying to lay hands on, plus the painting I bought from his estate auction watches me every time I walk through the foyer. A publisher sent me two essay compliations of Camus; it’s a secondary venture.

Since acquiring Roth’s Chinese reverse painting on glass I’ve intended to actually read his books – aside from Portnoy, which I read more than a decade ago and honestly disliked. Within the past couple of weeks I’ve bought multiple works of nonfiction by and about Roth, begun The Plot Against America, and started watching various documentaries and YouTube videos.

Chinese Painting on Glass, from the Philip Roth Estate

I’m falling madly for Philip Roth and I didn’t expect that. Based on a rushed read of Portnoy’s Complaint a lifetime ago, I mentally lumped him in with the School of Testosterone, my own personal and highly subjective classification for male writers I simply have not gotten along with, for various reasons. Most of them, frankly, have to do with an obsession with sex and sweaty man things. Can I be more specific: no.

I AM LOOKING AT YOU, HENRY MILLER.

For a good many years, I ostracized Hemingway. Weirdly enough, for a writer I’d formed an early dislike to – SEE: Forced march through The Old Man and the Sea book and film in high school – I made a concerted effort to see his homes in Oak Park, IL and Key West, FL. When in Rome?

Exactly when he snuck back in the parlor I can’t pinpoint but I had relegated him to the stables, where he’d been up to god knows. Visiting Shakespeare & Co. in Paris may have been his turning point, laying eyes on that iconic bookshop and imagining what they’d gotten up to endeared him to me.

If Sylvia Beach welcomed him, how bad could he be?

Shakespeare & Co., Paris, 2016

If you’ve read or know anything about The Plot Against America, it will be no surprise this is not an anxiety-lessening novel. Roth imagines an America overrun by facism, supposing what would have happened if the extreme right-wing leaning Charles Lindbergh had defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election. The best choice to be reading right now? Not so sure. A phenomenal read, yes.

Its concentration on the fictional Roth family has thus far kept me engaged without raising my already sky-high anxiety. I won’t hesitate to put it aside if it gets too intense but I don’t get the impression it will.

LOLLLZZZ – famous last words.

My health is, and will remain, first and foremost over any reading. Philip Roth wrote something on the order of 30 novels. I’m not lacking in material.

It’s Sunday evening. My brain and eyes are exhausted from spending the weekend staring at books and screens. I’m trotting off to find something entertaining to watch so I can unfocus my eyes and relax my brain. No documentaries, no heavy anything. Pity I don’t have a soaking tub or I’d end all my days in it.

Wait. That sounds off.

2019 so far: a recap

2019 marks the fourth anniversary of my divorce. I’d like to say I’ve settled into the next chaper of life, but in lots of ways I really haven’t.

The best part of post-marriage is the weight of a 25-year incompatible relationship falling off my shoulders. I chose a man who was steady and a good provider, knew his way around car and home maintenance, and could fix my computer- very practical things, if not terribly romantic.

Make that not at all romantic. See that red flag waving? So did we, but chose to ignore it.

We really didn’t like each other. He’s extraordinarily intelligent, but cold and inflexible, quick to anger, and lacking empathy. His life lacks passion; I pity that.

My dreamy, artsy, laissez-faire personality irritated the living hell out of him. I refused to take little things seriously, parented too liberally, and chose reading over house cleaning.

Opposites may attract, but without mutual respect and a core connection it’s unsustainable. Post-divorce we’re able to get along on a superficial level, civil and friendly. The kids will always connect us, but we’re so much happier apart.

Divorce has meant the freedom to make my own decisions – some wildly, epically irrational, most eccentric but basically safe. I look at him and think dear god, your life is so safe and boring. I take risks, unafraid of falling on my face. He’ll always take life far too seriously.

Fast-forward to 2019, and I’m living in my fifth home. Spending two years in my first rental, my crazy edventurous nature reared its head when I took off to live with – and potentially marry – a friend in Scotland. Back in the States a year, for the second time I sold off or stored all my stuff, moving back to the UK.

Sitting here in my third over-prized suburban Chicago apartment, I have loads of weird – though wildly magical – memories, and absolutely no regrets, but feel rootless. Restless since crawling out from under the constraints of marriage, all that flirting with life as an ex-pat cured my wanderlust.

I want to be anchored, settled in one place, and steady. I want to belong, in ways I haven’t for a long time. I own that I’m partially feral, but the part of me that’s domesticated is damned tired of being alone.

In one staggering way I’ll get to shortly, I didn’t see 2019 coming. Accustomed to serendipitous surprises, I’d have been disappointed otherwise. The process of nesting I anticipated, and I love my little place. Already over-crowded with stuff, it’s not Ikea perfect like my Pinterest board, but I accept it’s a work in progress.

Professionally, I’m in flux. My current day job is stable, but unsatisfying. A creative idea generator with a penchant for – brace yourselves – writing, there’s little call for my skill set in this environment. On the other hand, fast-paced, intricately complex work in finance has honed all new skill sets I never dreamed I’d have. After four years I’m crazy good at multi-tasking, agile and comfortable navigating two screens full of databases while listening to and empathizing with clients. As experience goes, it’s valuable.

If creativity remains an avocation, I’ll try to come to terms. But I’m not giving up.

Romantically, 2019’s taken my breath away. Back in the States less than two months, I decided what the hell, life’s had some stray slow moments. Let’s dip a toe in the water and stir things up. I’ve dated pretty extensively in four years, between two marriage close calls. I’ve both made some good friends and experienced staggering weirdness, and was ready to close up shop again one date before fate stepped in.

Maybe that’s just the way it happens. When you’re just about the close the door, life says hold my beer and dig this.

The One. Him. The synchronicity of two fated souls meeting.

I’m not overstating; I do nothing by halves.

I suspected it from our first date, knew it not long after. In a few days we’ll hit five months, but I’m not going into a lot of detail now. Plenty of time for that. No update of 2019 could go without mention of it, no other change in my life as profound.

All the rest of it – the reading, the writing, the vagaries of existence, etc., etc. – will come out in time. Dynamic and shifting in so many ways, in this I’m beginning to take root. I don’t believe in a god or divine plan, but when I threw it out there that I’m ready, life said okay, how about I surpass all expectations?

I can’t explain how it happened, but I don’t expect life to provide answers. It’s real and it’s thriving and I’m no fool.

I’m going to run with it.

It’s passed the middle of 2019. I’ve learned around the corner surprises lie, and this year has proved no exception. I have hopes for the future, very specific ones. Patience isn’t my strong suit, but I’m not without diversions to work on in the meantime.

It’s headed in the right direction. And I’ll take it.

May be a bit of a lag.

 

Goodbye, Edinburgh. And goodbye, UK.

 

I have a post in draft form about my visit to London to meet up with online bookgroup friends of nearly 15 years, however, I’ve had to up stakes and change plans entirely. I’m not long for the UK, friends.

The Landlaird’s broken this camel’s back via a grievous breach of privacy and wearisome jealousy, both professional and personal. The rest of the world has friends; sorry you’re incapable of sustaining relationships, but I have a lot of them. Try dropping the unprovoked hysteria and paranoia, and keep to your wee niche. And, fuck’s sake, find and use spell check.

Barely worth the energy of an eye roll.

I may or may not post properly before I leave for the States. I’ll try very hard to at least push the London post through, but it will be tough.

It’s also not escaped me that it’s the end of the year already, time to wrap up 2018 reading. Well, I’ll do my level best.

Meantime, happy advent. Hope your holiday season’s bright. Here’s to a 2018 packed with lessons and a 2019 with possibilities.

Daily Scotland: Excursions to Haddington, East Lothian and Dean Village, Edinburgh

 

Haddington, East Lothian

 

Life’s been challenging for Chris and me this past week. Outside forces have been exerting a lot of negative energy, leaving us two anxiety-ridden insomniacs walking around like yawning zombies. The onset of autumn hasn’t helped. Shortening days coupled with cold winds and driving rain don’t improve the mood.

But then it’s Scotland, not Fiji. Get. Real.

I’ve been struggling with the excruciating SCOTUS hearings and subsequent confirmation of the Dishonourable Brett Kavanaugh – revealing so much misogyny and perversion entrenched in our justice system it staggers. I’ve insisted “this is not my country” whenever there’s been a racist or misogynistic event. Two years on, I may have to rethink that.

The mid-term elections on 6 November will be pivotal. If the country comes out against the Trump administration, hope lives. If not, the fight continues. It will swing back. The problem is rectifying the damage done will take a very long time, healing the rift between left and right the biggest hurdle.

We are a nation divided, indignation fueled by fury.

We took full advantage when the weather cooperated with brilliant sunshine last Tuesday. Yes! Sunshine in Scotland! Chris suggested a side-trip to the village of Haddington, East Lothian. Just twenty minutes-ish outside Edinburgh, it’s a pretty little place to spend an afternoon – longer if you search out all the historical sites.

For Chris, who’s powered by music, it has a used record shop. For both of us, used books and other fun things from a myriad of charity shops then a quick bite at a quaint little café called Diggory’s. If you happen by make sure you mention my name. They’ll have no idea why, but my ears will burn and I’ll know you care.

Try the paninis!

 

Clock tower, Haddington

 

Jane Bailie Welsh Carlyle

I didn’t read about the history of Haddington until I got home that evening. Turns out it has a lot. Walking in the main shopping area, I saw a plaque commemorating native daughter Jane Welsh Carlyle, woman of letters and wife of writer Thomas Carlyle, but didn’t follow through tracking down her birthplace. We both had plans later in Edinburgh so didn’t have the whole day, but her house was right there on the high street.

ARGH.

 

I’ve not read Jane Carlyle’s famous  letters, but was force-marched through an excerpt of Thomas’s excrutiating famous Sartor Resartus as an English literature undergrad. Virginia Woolf was a big fan of hers, and I’m a big fan of Woolf. She admired Carlyle because the woman pulled no punches:

I do think there is much truth in the Young German idea that marriage is a shockingly immoral institution, as well as what we have long known it for – an extremely disagreeable one.

Jane Welsh Carlyle, not particularly fond of Thomas

Haddington’s also where John Knox – minister and leader of Scotland’s reformation – and misogynist extraordinaire – was from. A ruined castle and churches, medieval bridge and connection to Mary, Queen of Scots are a few other things we missed. But then it was a let’s get the hell out of here and forget our worries for a while outing.

Chris’s cappuccino – much prettier than my Diet Coke

It was off to Edinburgh after lunch, for me pretty Dean Village. It took some doing finding an access point, since a lot of it’s pedestrian only. Poor Chris found a good spot to dump me through a lot of trial and error. Walking there is a lot different than driving, and he’d never driven. He’s a good egg.

Until the 19th century a separate village within Edinburgh, for 800 years a mill town, it’s now a staggeringly expensive, trendy place to live. Easy to see why:

 

Dean Village on the Leith

 

Still a few roses in bloom.

 

 

Have I made you sick with jealous loathing yet? If not, here you go!:

Dean Village is filled with wanderers, locals and bloody tourists. Chris dropped me  around 4 or so when it was largely deserted, so I had a relaxing meander until it got too dark for decent photography. My one regret is I didn’t make it to the cemetery before it closed. I won’t talk about the why until I’ve been there. It has to do with artsy, literature-related stuff and this post isn’t about that.

Pretty much a perfect day, overall. Stress? What stress. For a few hours it was possible to forget all about it.

 

Daily Scotland: Accent(uate) the positive.

 

Where’s the damn escalator.

 

Assimilation into Scottish life and culture has been hampered by the obviousness of my American accent. It’s not obnoxiously regional (sorry, fellow countrymen), more News Anchor American.

Still.

American.

I hope it’s my imagination all noise around me stops when I open my mouth, like a space alien has just spoken, causing jaws to drop in disbelief and eyes to search for the nearest exit. I have the Celtic red hair going on, and attempt to keep my style of dress out of Hawaiian shirt and white sneakers territory, so possibly it’s just unexpected. I’m not pushy, don’t feel a sense of entitlement, say “sorry” even when it’s inappropriately ingratiating. My natural personality inclines toward British.

It’s that damned, glaring accent. I’ll never shed it.

The reaction’s been pleasant, though a bit surprised, when I speak to strangers. Nothing rude or prejudicial, though God who could blame them, especially these days.

I AM SO SORRY, WORLD.

My irritating habit of deferral toward Chris was a big part of last year’s dismal relationship failure.  Planning what to do, where and what to eat, how to spend time, etc., the vast majority was left to him. I took his lead, trailing behind like a puppy.

You never get to know a wishy-washy person who doesn’t speak up. Relationships kind of thrive on things like sharing and expressing interest. He genuinely wanted to get to know me better, to learn my likes and dislikes, share interests.

Who knew?

This year, I’m making a point of modifying that. His busyness with classes and my new-found book group buddies alleviate some of it, broadening our horizons and giving me more confidence. I’ve graduated from puppy to female dog, letting myself have actual preferences. For tonight, I’ve scheduled us for a pub trivia contest at a pretty little place in Edinburgh. Both of us tapping away in the office last evening, I asked if he was interested. Trying not to appear too surprised lest he scare me off, his answer was happily casual. Yes, he said, inside thinking OH MY GOD, THANK YOU, SHE DOES HAVE A PERSONALITY.

What keeps us coming back to each other if we have had such difficulties. I hear you asking that. What we have in common are the big things, mostly sharing political and tolerance philosophy; foul mouths; a passion for literature and lifetime learning. I think he’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve known, and he thinks I am.

What keeps any relationship together?

No, really. I NEED TO KNOW.

 

 

Meanwhile, when I’m not watching weirdly fascinating British game shows (future post in the pipeline), I’m setting about the process of setting up a freelance editing business. It’s going to take forever. It wants to take forever, but I can’t let it.

M-O-N-E-Y, friends. It helps you buy stuff. I like stuff. Especially food, clothing and shelter. In that order.

I’ve been watching videos about how to set up websites, how to go rogue wild freelance. Driving myself crazy over-thinking. I need to set achievable goals, realize things will change and evolve, that my first website will be complete shit.

Life’s a learning process. You go forward, you screw up, blah blah blah, motivational quote so sweet it gives you cavities. Complicating it all, I’m an American living in the UK.

Have you heard my accent?

 

 

Still having trouble posting decent photos, sorry. Taking Chris up on his offer of borrowing his DSLR will improve things. Then I can upload higher-quality stuff: NOW WITH REAL PIXELS! As of now, all pics come from my camera. They have that distinct not great quality that’s pretty not ideal. I’m a better photographer than that.

I swear.

Goddamnit.