Early February check in: Spark & Shelley & Bowie (and abject misery)

 

Screw April; February is the real Cruelest Month

 

February heard me telling it to sod off. It’s only the 10th, and it’s already wiped the floor with my pasty arse. Hell, so far all of 2018 hates my guts. Yes, I said I wanted an exciting year. But my definition of “exciting” is not being medicated with a variety of different pain killers.

Counting down to a life abroad, yes. That was exciting. This, not so much. GET IT RIGHT, 2018!

The fractured rib is old history. A week ago, I also broke a toe by accidentally kicking a wall while getting dressed (don’t ask). Ever broken a toe? Tried wearing shoes after? Every step is excruciating, like pardon me while I sob excrutiating. I’ve been clomping around in snow boots two sizes too big, just to walk at all. It’s not the best look.

And last night, a crown fell off my tooth, leaving an exposed root. You can’t put big snow boots on a tooth missing a crown. It hurts like son on a bitch. A friend recommended trying a temporary crown compound. Having no choice, I ventured out in a driving blizzard to find it. The plan was to shove this stuff in my tooth hole, then call my dentist the next morning for an emergency appointment. Satisfied the pseudo-crown wouldn’t fall out and choke me, I went to bed.

With big snowstorms come very loud snow plows. Waking in the middle of the night to the ear-splitting sound of metal scraping cement, I peeked out to see at least four to five inches of white, fluffy, frozen are you even kidding me on my balcony. Tapping the  fake crown with my tongue, I jiggled it a tiny bit. A piece fell off. Trying not to panic, I told myself maybe it’s just a little extra material. Half an hour later, another piece fell off. Then another. HOLY MOTHER OF GOD! By morning, out it popped, right in my hand.

 

Snowmageddon: February 2018

 

You know those nightmares about your teeth falling out? How horrifying they are? That’s for a reason: it IS horrifying. Fortunately, my dentist was able to fit me in at 9 a.m. While working on my tooth, he said, “You know, to fix this right I’d need to remove part of your gum. Or you may lose the tooth.”

What.

Long story short, I’m sitting here now with a swollen, throbbing mouth, a temporary crown atop the gaping chasm, disposable sutures holding stuff together – stuff I really need to not picture in my mind’s eye right now. In a month, another two-hour appointment will find the permanent crown installed, one long nightmare ended.

You really do suck, February.

And 2018.

 

Spark & Shelley

 

Credit: The New Yorker

 

Muriel Spark’s bio of Mary Shelley nearly read, I went ahead and jumped into The Ballad of Peckham Rye. I couldn’t wait, sorry. I’m already ahead of heavenali’s reading schedule, but the way my luck’s going god knows what may happen to derail me. May as well take advantage while I’m upright and conscious.

Now this is the Muriel Spark I enjoy. I’m not ready to discuss it since I haven’t finished, but there’s a fascinating Scottish main character – Dougal Douglas – a very funny, very mischievous man. Up ’til now she hasn’t written any Scottish characters, not any central to the plot.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Why now, and why Dougal. And why Dougal Douglas, the humanities man.

I love village stories like this, character-driven tales of living in small towns. This one’s wonderfully funny; the taste of Memento Mori has been washed from my mouth – along with a lot of blood and some gum tissue. Sorry for that grotesque image. I’ve been so careful with it, haven’t I.

Sorry to the squeamish.

Anyway, I’m enjoying it immensely, and should finish over the weekend. I’ll talk about it then.

 

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)

 

As for Mary Shelley, my sympathy for her continues to grow. I didn’t realize she’d only had eight years with Percy. How sad she lost him so early, but then reading about his possible affairs with other women, I don’t see this as the grand romance I’d once imagined.

Of course it’s still sad he died tragically, even if he was kind of a mooch, as well as a lech. Kind of? Very much so. Not long before his death, he fell hard for first an Italian woman named Emilia, then a mutual friend of Mary’s. Only after he was gone did Mary learn the truth about the second woman. The first he didn’t bother concealing. She was his muse, of sorts, for a brief while. Now, what kind of man does that to his wife, especially one who’s given birth to and buried three of his children. Not just that, her devotion to him knew no bounds.

Did he love Mary? No doubt, of course he did. Still, that doesn’t give the spoiled genius another reason to act badly. I’m just not a fan of this man, am I. Let’s leave Percy for now.

What’s very saddening is how lonely she was after her husband died, how almost desperately she searched around for someone to love. A man whose love she rejected, but wanted to see her happy, tried pairing her with Washington Irving, of all people. Washington Irving, the American author of – among other things – “Rip van Winkle”. Sounds so odd, I can’t even say why.

The whole story is embarrassing, or would have embarrassed her, had she known. She really did seem to have a crush on Irving, and her would-be suitor knew it, so he showed Irving letters in which she’d “jokingly” made vague reference to her esteem for him. You know how 19th C letters go. Something as simple as, “Weren’t his boots so shiny, though! La! How well-dressed and mannered he is!” is like today’s “God, he has the tightest ass!”

SPOILER: It didn’t work out. Irving ignored it.

I’ll talk about the bio over the weekend, as well. Both books should be finished by then.

Bowie 100

 

Bowie 100 Read: The Fire Next Time

 

In Bowie reading, I already admitted Hawksmoor wasn’t to be. I bought a copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time to read for March. Thing is, I haven’t seen Duncan Jones actually discussing Hawksmoor. Maybe I’ve missed it on Twitter, but it hasn’t been obvious.

Mental note: CHECK, FFS.

If he hasn’t, and needs help with Baldwin, I wouldn’t mind stepping it up a bit. It is a short book, after all, Baldwin’s a masterful writer, and February (ahem) is Black History Month. A few discussion tweets wouldn’t kill me.

I honestly don’t know if I’ll continue reading the Bowie 100 if Duncan isn’t talking about what the books meant to his father. That was the interesting hook. But, again, I need to actually check on that.

I’ve been busy, what with bleeding and all.

Book Haul!

I still haven’t caught up with purchased, but here’s one recent haul:

 

 

I’m kind of also showing off my mid-century modern chair, too. And impeccable taste. But mostly, the books.

 

 

So, we have two Brontes, a Spark novel and work of criticism, and replacements of my Julian Barnes and Eudora Welty titles. Not in the detail are the wee Penguin books I love so much, and am slowly replacing.

 

This is what’s been keeping me so busy, not all of it pleasant. Truly, this year has been a downer.

I hope it turns around, I really do.

I’ll talk to you all this weekend, February willing.

 

January in Review: Books and Bitchery

 

Snowy January night

 

The only thing worse than January is…. drum roll… February!

The second month of the year tends to be colder in Chicago – colder and snowier. Plus, you think hey, March is around the corner, so it’s almost spring, right? Nope and nooooope. March may have stray warmer, sunnier moments here and there, but it’s nowhere near actual spring. Neither’s April. Nor at least half of May. True spring arrives in Chicago in June.

Yippee! Four months to go.

January was pretty much a pisser. I fractured my rib on New Year’s Eve, my mood took a deep, dark dive, I found out my cracked crown (I didn’t even tell you about that!) is hiding unadulterated evil in its depths, and I may lose the tooth – or the periodontist will drill into my jaw, in an attempt to save it, and my job has become a cesspool of stress.

Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

Books Read: January 2018

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Miss Jane by Brad Watson

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

It’s All Relative by AJ Jacobs

The Comforters by Muriel Spark

Robinson by Muriel Spark

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

 

Reading was a saving grace. Well, except for Memento Mori, which I disliked intensely. My new home library grows apace, expanding past the three bookcases I bought initially. It’s time for a couple more; I have so much space here it’s insane.

For the Bowie project, I had to bail on Hawksmoor. I’d joined Audible for the first free month to have a crack at it, but was so afraid I’d forget to drop it and wind up socked with a $ 14.95/month bill I panicked and dropped it.

I do a lot of panic dropping.

The next Bowie book is James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, very readily available. I’ll try to catch up with them in March, schedule allowing.

I watched a few good films, binged a Netflix series or six (Stranger Things (season 2), Glow, The Magicians (gave up),  Black Mirror (I’ve seen all the seasons – OMG!), Alias Grace (OMGG!), Portlandia, re-watched The Office for the five hundredth time – it’s great to sleep to since I practically have it memorized). I’m going to sign up for Hulu, at least for the free month. I never got to see that last episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.

My inability to get going on my 2018 journal is a scourge. Aside from Bluestalking, I haven’t done much writing. My Moleskine notebook and custom-made leather-bound journal barely made it off the ground. I refuse to beat myself up about  that. Looking back at January, I’m fairly impressed with myself. I’m adulting, getting things done. Gainfully employed, my bills are paid. My home is warm and inviting – the downstairs, at least, the upstairs has no furniture but beds – and my life has decent balance.

I am a work in progress.

Realizing I’ve spent long enough at my current job, my resume has been cast to the winds. One preliminary library interview under my belt, I’m hoping for a call back next week. If I get this job, I’ll burrow more deeply, putting down roots. Uncertain I want to stay in Chicago for good, that would absolutely ensure I’m here at least a couple more years. Longer, if it pans out.

Restlessness is my Achilles heel. Still a little de-stabilized, I get that. Presented with a wide-open world, I want to grasp it all. Trouble is, you’ll never be happy if you don’t learn not to always want the other.

I need to bloom where I’m planted.

Chicago is no slouch. There’s much here I’ve yet to explore – the American Writers Museum, for one. How have I not been there? We have our share of literary history, including: Hemingway, Richard Wright, Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair. Bereft we’re not. And the architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright!), the symphony and opera houses, the museums and ebullient spirit of one of the world’s great cities.

 

Oak Park, IL

 

It’s not impossible I’ll move away. But for now, word is a person can take vacations to beautiful places without putting down roots there. Or marrying natives. That great, wide world isn’t going anywhere.

Maybe January wasn’t such an awful month. Challenging, sure. But looking back from where I sit, I’m feeling oddly satisfied.

Bring it, February.

 

Daily: Bits & Bob’s yer uncle

 

 

After a long stretch of feeling pretty okay, insomnia and that black dog depression reared their ugly heads once again. The all too familiar slide began before Christmas. I thought once the holidays passed I’d bounce back; a couple weeks later, I realized that wasn’t going to happen without intervention.

You can’t be proud when it comes to your health. I talked with my doctor, he prescribed a “nudge” medication, and I’m back to sleeping like a baby.

I can feel the slightest deviation in mood. My brain’s like a Stradivarius, without the market value. There’s no need to suffer when you don’t have to, especially when it compromises something as important as sleep.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Reading-wise, I’m accumulating a lot more books than I’m reading.

I know: GASP.

Five or six books joined my vintage Penguin pile (I’ll tell you later), along with publisher freebies and the fruits of several ill-advised visits to bookstores. I say “ill-advised” only because I’m carrying a balance on my credit card I’d theoretically very much like to pay off.

Among other things, I found this gorgeous copy of Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by Andrea D’Aquino:

 

 

Mistress Alice

 

The White Rabbit

 

The caterpillar & his hookah

 

ABSOLUTELY STUNNING.

* * * * * * *

What to do with five days off…

Poor me, I requested my birthday (March 28) and the four days following off work. Now I have to choose a destination. Don’t you even say Scotland.

Just NO.

One thing I neglected to consider: late March is prime spring break season. Anyplace warm will be packed with thousands of college kids vomiting their brains out in the streets. Outstanding. There goes Nola, for sure. Right before Easter, at the height of party season? Nice planning, idiot.

I need to pick a place kids don’t care about, far from the madding crowd. Something tells me they won’t be hunting things literary like I will. I know, I’m probably giving them short shrift. Of course American kids are erudite.

Nope. Can’t manage a straight face.

Here are the options I’ve chosen:

 

Native of Asheville, NC

Option One: Asheville, NC.

Asheville is on my shortlist of possible places to move. It’s roughly a ten-hour drive, so close enough I can zip back to the Chicago area to visit the kids with relative ease. It’s kind of in the South, along the Atlantic seaboard, so it’s milder. It’s also damned beautiful.

A towering figure in American letters – Thomas Wolfe – hails from Asheville, plus it’s roughly two short hours to gorgeous Charleston, right on the Atlantic. The drive there would be beautiful, and there’s plenty to see and do.

 

Harper Lee and Truman Capote

Option Two: Alabama!

A literary loop in Alabama, now that’s not a bad idea.

Yes, I said Alabama.

Harper Lee was from Alabama. Truman Capote visited her in Monroeville every summer, as a child. Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald owned a home in Montgomery, where Zelda was born.

The state’s actually blessed with literary connections. And losing Republican senators.

 

Burlington, VT

Option Three: Swoon.

New England. Lovely, lovely New England. Choices here are limitless. So limitless I can’t choose. What an awful problem to have.

But… And this is a very big but… It’s six hours further than Asheville. Thirty-two hours driving in the space of five days? I love road trips, but holy mother of gawd.

 

Sweet home, Chicago

Option Four: Staycation in Lovely Chicago.

I don’t take enough advantage of living next to this beautiful city. All the architecture, the Newberry Library, the Art Institute… It’s true you neglect what’s right under your nose.

And I don’t mean your mouth.

Hotels are expensive in the city, sure. But no more than I’d be paying on long road trips, not to mention gas – and wear and tear on the car. Of course, it’s also minus Asheville and Alabama and New England.

Blimey.

If you were me, which would you pick?

Daily: Mind/Body balance for the extraordinarily lazy

I’m expanding the focus of Bluestalking to include more personal stuff, more about my life outside books and writing. We’ll see how it goes.

Today, it’s personal.

 

 

Mum had a Charles-and-Diana wedding mug that had survived longer than the marriage itself. Mum had worshipped Princess Di and frequently lamented her passing. “Gone,” she would say, shaking her head in disbelief. “Just like that. All that exercise for nothing.” Diana-worship was the nearest thing Mum had to a religion.

Kate Atkinson, When Will There Be Good News

 

 

I’ve written previously about my lack of grace and spatial awareness leading to a rib-fracturing fall on New Year’s Eve. Again, I swear I was not inebriated. Not to sound puritanical, because it’s not the drinking I object to, but alcohol gives me a headache.

Not worth it.

Plus, it seems so Ernest Hemingway sitting in the semi-dark alone, pulling on a bottle. Next thing you know, I’ll be sprouting a hairy chest, ripping open my shirt, roaring self-praise and fishing for marlin.

It’s one short step away.

2018 was supposed to be about strengthening my body, getting my middle-aged self back into a healthy routine. Before the year even began, I hit a speed bump. I can’t  always breathe above a shallow wheeze, nor lift more than five pounds. I can’t twist or bend without using great caution, even sneeze without my eyes popping out.

In a bid to feel superior to other NY resolutionists, I joined a gym before the holidays. Then I could say, “I already had a membership before January 1; I’m no newbie!”

Karma sure slapped me down and fast.

When I was vegetarian, I felt superior to lowly carnivores. I enjoyed mixing up fruit and veg shakes with things like Spirulina added. The more disgusting and sludgy it looked, the better I felt about myself – even if occasionally ill-advised mixtures made me gag.

I was one of those people.

 

Very Basic Vegetarian Starter Template:

Breakfast options:

  • Oatmeal with nuts/fruit
  • Veggie Omelette ( add salsa, cheese, etc. if you’d like)
  • Greek Yogurt Smoothie (add soy or almond milk to thin + any fruits)

Lunch options:

  • Stir-fried Veggie/Tofu
  • Roasted Veggie Wrap or Sandwich
  • Loaded Baked Potato (any veg, salsa and/or cheese if you’d like)

Dinner options:

  • Stir-fried Veggie/Tofu
  • Loaded Baked Potato (any veg, salsa and/or cheese if you’d like)
  • Veggie Omelete (add salsa, cheese if you’d like)

Snacks:

  • Smoothie
  • Fruits/nuts

 

The thing about being vegetarian wasn’t just cutting out meat, especially the dreaded RED. Things like french fries, though plants, I considered cheating. I was vegetarian for health reasons. Cutting out meat meant vigilance about the health benefits of all foods. I spent indecent amounts of money on supplements I probably didn’t even need. Recent studies scoff at most of the vitamins and other “healthy” extras I was taking. With my strict diet, I didn’t need all that.

I worked out hard, sometimes twice a day, going in for yoga or another exercise class in the morning, back for cardio and weight training later. This was before I returned to work after twelve years as a stay at home mom, mind. I’d never have the luxury for such single-minded devotion now – not to mention the money to belong to a gym that has both classes and cardio/resistance training equipment. Have you priced those? Dear holy mother of god and all the saints and angels.

Hitting middle age – actually past the middle, unless I plan to live over 100 – is humbling. Muscle mass decreases, as does skin elasticity. I curse gravity. My day job is 100% sedentary. So is freelance writing. All that sitting does terrible things to overall health.

 

A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise.

AA Milne, Winnie the Pooh

 

I admit I don’t particularly watch what I eat. I care a lot about keeping the grocery bills down, and healthy food is more expensive than crap. Ridiculous logic, I know. It’s the dietary equivalent of irritating people who say to me, “I don’t have time to read,” then blather on about everything they’re bingeing on Netflix.

YOU HAVE TIME TO READ, YOU CHOOSE NOT TO DO IT. Don’t give me your lame excuses.

So, I have money to spend, I just don’t always do so wisely. It’s all about priorities. Health-wise, I’m just as bad as they are intellect building-wise.

I maintain a love of vegetables and fruits from my old life. Hardly a day goes by I don’t put healthy things like spinach and mushrooms – especially spinach – into what I eat. At home it’s not as bad. I eat a lot of omelettes stuffed with veggies, very little cheese, and I put these same veggies in pasta, etc. But when I order in, or go to restaurants with the kids, I eat what they eat – what they can afford to eat being young and thin, with an actual metabolism.

I could easily improve; I just don’t.

 

Easy Peasy Grocery List for Above Template:

  • assorted veggies
  • assorted fruits
  • baking potatoes
  • nuts – almonds/walnuts
  • sandwich wraps
  • whole grain bread
  • hard tofu
  • greek yogurt – the big size
  • almond or soy milk
  • oatmeal
  • eggs
  • cheese, or salsa, or other condiment you’d like for flavoring
  •  oil or vegetable spray for stir frying

Tell me that’s not easy…

 

Lying here with a temporarily debilitating injury, suddenly I’m filled with all these thoughts of what I could be doing to improve my health. If I weren’t lying here, I could be hitting the gym hard! I could be taking the dog for long walks!

I could, but would I? It’s so easy telling myself this when I absolutely can’t perform activities outside essential self-care and taking the dog out. In a couple of weeks when I’m healed enough to gradually ease into exercise, I’ll find other excuses to overcome.

I’ll admit it: I hate most forms of exercise. It’s boring as hell. I type really fast. Does that burn NO calories?

 

If I can prop a book up and read while I’m doing it, it’s bearable. Also, there are audiobooks. If I’m outside, and there’s something to see, there’s my camera.

Maybe I don’t hate every form of exercise. Oh, FINE.

I’m not great at self-motivation. I not one of those super-charged people. Yes, I know, most of those people get that way through pre-planning, not letting life lead them around. Poor me time needs to morph into utilizing this time I’m down with an injury – a genuine reason I can’t exercise, not an excuse – to work up a schedule for exercise, to find recipes that are healthy but don’t require expensive, exotic ingredients. And, FFS, I don’t need to budget for unnecessary supplements.

I know what I need to do; I just need to do it. I’m frustrated, and tired of being frustrated with myself. I am better than this. What I’ve done in the past can be done again. Just as I’m scheduling time to get out and socialize, to re-join book and writing groups, to write more and more often, I need to make firm health-related goals.

The key is balance. See, I know that. Will I be the twice a day workout queen? I doubt I’ll see those days again. But can I improve? Absolutely.

My Moleskine notebook is sitting next to me, barely utilized this year. I see lots of blank pages to use for goal setting.

I can’t exercise, but I can plan what I’ll do once I’m cleared.

I can’t shop for food beyond what I can carry, which isn’t a lot, but I can research, find recipes, and get sample menus planned.

There’s no lack of helpful information out there on health matters, nor tips of keeping track and make yourself accountable. If I have time to moan and feel sorry for myself, I have time to get pro-active, as well.

I know a man who drives 600 yards to work. I know a woman who gets in her car to go a quarter of a mile to a college gymnasium to walk on a treadmill, then complains passionately about the difficulty of finding a parking space. When I asked her once why she didn’t walk to the gym and do five minutes less on the treadmill, she looked at me as if I were being willfully provocative. ‘Because I have a program for the treadmill,’ she explained. ‘It records my distance and speed, and I can adjust it for degree of difficulty.’ It hadn’t occurred to me how thoughtlessly deficient nature is in this regard.

Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods

 

 

This applies to all my 2018 goals, though for today I’m approaching only this one. It’s a big one, an over-arching lifestyle change everything else hinges on. And I don’t expect perfection with this, as I shouldn’t with anything. Those of us who spend a great deal of our time reading and writing, working desk jobs to support our habit, have to take a serious look at how well we take care of ourselves.

It’s about forward progress, friends. I improve my mind every day. I work on reading and writing, as well as getting myself out of the house. Now, it’s time to balance that out with:

Health

Professional satisfaction

General Organization

and

Nesting

One step at a time.

 

 

 

 

New Year, New [Insert Stupid Platitude]

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like the Dismal Reality of Winter

 

Lady Annabel Mabel, standing guard

 

I don’t miss a lot of things about pre-divorce holidays, things like awkward gift-giving between myself and my ex, long after the intimacy of friendship had expired. Even the years I tried buying things I thought he’d appreciate – difficult because he had no discernible interests – I’d find everything he’d unwrapped Christmas Day still sitting, piled neatly in the same place come the following summer.

At that point I’d donate it all to charity, bitter as hell.

What I miss is not having to schedule “my time” with the kids over the holidays. I mean, they’re adults. It’s not a custody battle so much as a negotiation of schedules. I respect that Christmas Eve was always with his family, he recognizes Christmas Day is mine, by default.

Simple, but not simple.

We have three children: a daughter and two sons, all legal adults. My daughter, for reasons I won’t go into, doesn’t speak to her father. She lives with her girlfriend in a dedicated relationship, so needs to share time with her family, plus have time to celebrate as a couple.

My sons are both in college. One lives with his father, visiting me weekly-ish to hang out and order in dinner. The other attends school at Iowa State. During the school year, he’s away. When he’s off, he runs back and forth between houses. This year, they had Christmas Day free; their sister didn’t.

Getting all of us together required schedule shifting. We got together mid-week, ate a make-shift dinner of nothing special, and opened gifts. It was fun, just impromptu.

Until this year, New Year’s Eve was also mine. My ex, who’d just broken up with his girlfriend after figuring out she’s a psychopath, had no one to party with (SAD!) so invited his mother. My sons were torn. I told them hey, you see her less than you do me, spend NYE with your grandma.

I didn’t mind spending the holiday alone, only this year I fell and cracked a rib on New Year’s Eve. Not so fun. It’s still mending, and no, I wasn’t drunk.

No, I wasn’t.

Can You Say HYDROCODONE?

 

I WAS NOT DRUNK!

 

After a week’s paid sick leave, I’m heading back to work tomorrow. So distraught thrilled about that, I can’t even tell you.

Happy Frickin’ New Year.

All that lying around doped up on pain meds gave me time to think. My mind hasn’t stopped racing since August, to be honest. I want to be a librarian again. My day job pays the bills, takes good care of me with health insurance, but there’s just no satisfaction in what I do.

There was not one, single day I woke up thinking I don’t want to go to work as a librarian. Not one.

I want that again.

There are no librarian jobs in Chicago, nothing full-time with health benefits and retirement plans. It’s dismal. I have a damn fine resume, but newly minted librarians are pouring out of universities. I have experience, but they’re techie. Guess which city libraries prefer?

Yup.

Had things worked out in the UK, as soon as I had permission I’d have pursued a library job there. Not that I’m assuming the job market’s any better there than here.  All moot now.

I need to evaluate my skills and upgrade them, write a killer resume, network like hell, and zero in on interesting places to settle. I love the Pacific Northwest, New England, and parts of the South.

New England has history. I love that. It’s also expensive, and winters are brutal. The Pacific Northwest is stunning and politically liberal, but far from Chicago for return visits. And the South. It’s scary conservative – like terrifyingly – with summers hotter than Hades. Positives are I have family there, also family that owns a house sitting empty on a couple hundred acres of wooded farmland. It’s near the more liberal university town of Oxford – home of Ole Miss University – one of those select places in the South I’d consider living.

 

Faulkner’s Roanoke, Oxford, MS

 

Oxford, Mississippi as in William Faulkner and Square Books – serious plusses. Lots of literary history in that state, a legacy of brilliance. You can see my dilemma: history, rational politics, or a ready-made home.

I said I wanted 2018 to be splash-out spectacular – like 2017, minus the drama. I want life to be satisfying and interesting. Last year offered so much potential, delivered so much loss. So many dreams. Where did they go?

I wish I knew.

Taking another mis-step would not be catastrophic. My next stop doesn’t have to be my ultimate destination. I just want to find a place that feels like home – foreign but familiar. Discontent haunts me. I’m restless, left reeling.

I still want now what I wanted then:

1 – To travel, take pictures, write and blog about an adventurous life

2 – To live someplace wild and unique, mysterious, loaded with history

3 – A compatible someone to share life and interests, without suffocating me

Number three may have to wait. That’s okay. One and two are more than sufficient for now.

I don’t want to jump into something I’ll regret, but neither can I afford to let opportunities pass. Lists. I need to make lists of pros and cons, options and deal breakers. All the practicalities of life. I’ve never been big on that, but now that I’m in charge, I better pick up the pace.

Clock’s ticking. Time’s a -wastin’.

What will it be.

 

 

Reading at the tail end of 2017: Ethical dilemmas thereof, and the future of my blog

 

It’s a real problem for the reading and book tracking obsessed: must you add books half-finished at the end of 2017 to that year’s tally (post-mortem, as it were), even if you don’t finish them until 2018, or is it morally justified migrating them to first reads of 2018?

My Code of Ethics Regarding Reading Protocol doesn’t cover this. Time to go rogue and make up my own rules:

Books finished in 2018 count as 2018 reads! 

Such a saucy minx.

30 December 2017: Books in Progress

 

Classics Group Read: An Easy Choice

 

A no-brainer. The classics group that chose Nicholas Nickleby doesn’t meet for discussion until late January. I have no qualms saving this for 2018’s list.

Is it the book’s fault I needed the full four weeks? I think not. Only eight chapters in, there are still 50,000 pages to go. It is Dickens, after all. The man doesn’t do short – though you’d have to ask Ellen Ternan for the official word on that.

HAHAHAHA! Sorry. Nerd humor.

Paid by the word and long-winded, some dislike him for it. Despite the fact his tangents run to dozens of pages, I adore him. The wonky characters and snarky side-comments, even the sentimental plots, have made him one of my favorite writers ever. His insights into human nature are spot on, still relevant.

That is the definition of classic literature.

My favorites of his novels are: Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House and Great Expectations. I do wish I could time travel back to the Victorian era and destroy all copies of Little Dorrit. It’s like Paul McCartney’s collaboration with Michael Jackson… very bad judgment. Almost reputation ruining, teeth grittingly bad work.

Ah, but the rest of his canon makes up for it.

I wonder how the group will like it. Recently returned after several years’ hiatus (I was an original member back when it was first formed, six or so years ago), I vaguely remember a few aren’t fond of the Victorians. It will behoove me to step up and defend the literature I love best. There are also new members, wild cards. I can’t predict their reactions.

Was Nickleby the best choice to reel in the uncertain? An early novel in his career, it’s nowhere near on par with the titles I love best. A number of film adaptations have been done of it, so it has some staying power.

Fingers crossed I won’t find the response too negative. I can argue points like its length and diversions, but flowery Victorian prose isn’t for everyone.

 

It’s not you, it’s me. Or maybe it’s you,

 

Whole new problem, if I abandon a book begun in 2017, is it cheating to carry on reading it a bit past the New Year with the intent of listing it as a DNF (did not finish, for the uninitiated) for early 2018?

So much dilemma.

 

Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country estate, The Bridge. With her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie only has her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. For inside her new home lies a locked room, and beyond that door lies a two-hundred-year-old diary and a deeply unsettling painted wooden figure – a Silent Companion – that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself…

 

Frustratingly, the elements sound fascinating – the execution not so much.

It sounded such a delight I ordered it from the UK, paying international shipping. I hate paying international shipping for new books. They’re such a crap shoot. Classics, yes. Persephone or other reliable-quality editions, of course. Vintage Penguins, certainly!

But books recently published are just plain risky.

Eighty pages in, it’s not gripping me. The writing is loose, there’s no tension, no sense of menace above the barest trace. The haunted house should loom, not feel vaguely creepy in a pedestrian sense. A door closes and locks itself. Woooooo!!!

Not scary.

When I read a gothic, I want to be spooked, half looking back anticipating a cold hand dropping heavily on my shoulder.

I’m left with a dilemma: do I keep going despite its mediocrity, considering I’ve spent the money, or write it off since the money’s gone, anyway, and I can’t recoup it through squandering precious reading time.

One or two more chapters. I’ll give it only that.

The Silent Companions reminds me of overblown books of “gothic horror” like David Mitchell’s Slade House and Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. The two of them were just not scary, yet readers loved them.  Their premises sounded perfect; they didn’t deliver.

WHY ARE THEY SO LOVED.

David Mitchell is capable of brilliance. Audrey Niffenegger, for great ideas with results somewhat lacking. Most writers occasionally drop a dud. Such is the nature of the beast.

Like truly funny books, works of gothic horror are tough genres to nail. They must be perfect, taut as hell, without a single moment’s lapse.

I have not read a truly great work of gothic horror in a very, very long time. One title that springs to mind is Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Brilliant book. It’s not white knuckle terrifying, but a very good gothic. A couple others are just on the edge of my memory, elusive. One was about a house with a shifting staircase. Really spooky. I’ll think of it in the middle of the night and hate myself for forgetting it.

 

Forgotten female writers, a love of mine

 

Anne Royall was quite a rebellious woman, indeed. I’ve barely started the book; already I love her for that.

Publishing her first book in 1826 at the age of 57, Royall reinvented herself as a “women politico” a generation before the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She was a pioneering travel writer and satirist who broke ground on the wagon trails a generation before Mark Twain, and an investigative journalist who took on bankers and prison conditions a half century before muckrakers Ida Tarbell and Nellie Bly. She was the author of 10 original books, and publisher of a newspaper in Washington, DC for 25 years until the age of 85.

One of the most famous, sharp-witted and controversial women of her times, Royall was raised in the backwoods of the South but educated herself in one of the great libraries in the region. She openly cohabitated with her husband prior to their wedding, but was then left widowed and destitute after her husband’s family declared their marriage invalid. Turning to writing, Royall acquired fame and then enemies for her scathing and hilarious denouncements of corruption, incompetence and the blurry lines between church and state.

 

Author Jeff Biggers was the inadvertent cause of one of my biggest embarrassments as a newly-minted library programmer. Hiring him to come speak about a previous book about Appalachia as well as the writing process, I was devastated when no one showed.

It certainly wasn’t his fault, not was he upset. Relying on the public to care one whit about literature is precarious. Writers know this.

He stayed a while and talked with me, but I had a hard time getting past the humiliation I wasn’t able to fetch him an actual audience. I took a lot of things much too seriously back then, and I wasn’t as used to hanging out with writers as I am now. I’ve since learned they’re Actual People, not demigods. I love them, but they don’t intimidate me anymore.

Did I tell you about the time I chatted with Salman Rushdie and made him laugh? Because I pretty much tell everyone about that. How about the time former poet laureate Billy Collins left NOT ONE but TWO messages on my home answering machine, regarding an upcoming interview?

I’m slacking if I mention neither of those, at the very least.

His latest is one I’d like to devote serious attention to, not merely skim. I have to put reading time in reserve, as the chances this book will lead me to others is high. I’ll need a lot of note-taking time.

Most definitely a 2018 read.

All the Rest

Not members of my Ethical Reading Dilemma are books I’ve dipped into so superficially I don’t consider I’m technically reading them. Winding up next to or in bed with me, I page through them before I turn off the light. Not in the official reading queue, they’re transitional bedtime rituals.

2018 for sure.

Future Tense: Where am I going; where have I been

I did want to talk more about 2018 formal reading plans before the New Year, but I’m afraid I’ve already flooded you with posts. After a long drought, the dry ground of Bluestalking may not be equipped to absorb so much new blathering.

We all know my 2017 was amazing, that I don’t expect to see its equal again, though I dearly hope I will. Early plans for 2018 – another topic I’ve teased about – are awfully adventurous as well, though perhaps not quite so much as leaving the country for good. Leaving the area, perhaps. In fact, probably.

Don’t ask where… Mum’s the word.

Whatever becomes of me, Bluestalking is on track to change course a bit. My new tagline may be temporary, but gives an idea how I’m going to proceed. I’m not just a reader and writer, I’m also past the strict definition of mid-point in my life (unless I live past 100, and I have no plans to). Living alone and content, having had one wild rollercoaster of a life, I’d like to write more personal posts, keeping the literary slant.

There are not enough blogs written by Women of a Certain Age, not enough that speak frankly about concrete realities of living a solitary life. I’ll also feature more photographs, like I used to long ago. I replaced my DSLR camera, and am retraining myself in how to take decent pictures.

There are still many to share from 2017, as well.

I’m very excited about it all, looking forward to 2018. Thank you to everyone who’s followed me on my journey so far, for all the support and kindness on and off the blog over the past decade plus. I hope you enjoy where I’m taking things in the next stage of my life, that you’ll hop in the backseat and ride along.

Much happiness and health to you in 2018. All my very best.

Lisa

x

Happy Christmas Eve.

Quiet in my house this Christmas Eve. In the oven baking is a frozen beef and stout pie, in the fridge a six-pack of Stella Artois – an appropriately light drink with such heavy food. It smells wonderful, and suits my resistance to anything resembling actual cooking. This year, especially. Yes, okay, every year.

Whatever. Shut up.

My kids are scattered to the winds. My daughter is celebrating her first Christmas with her girlfriend in their tiny, animal-filled apartment (two cats and a dog…), my sons with their father’s family. My boys will come tomorrow, bringing tidings of great cheer and eating the massive amounts of food I bought. As for my daughter, she’s splitting holidays with her virtual in-laws. Plans are to get all of us together next weekend for presents and even more food.

 

You’d think I was feeding an army

 

Here’s hoping.

I’d imagined a very different Christmas for myself this year. For a fleeting few months, there was the very real possibility I’d be settled permanently in the UK, strolling through an Edinburgh wearing its magical holiday lights and decorations. I’d have missed my kids like crazy, but Scotland’s in my marrow still.

What’s ironic is it’s nearly impossible getting them all together now. They’re growing up and out, in separate directions. They’re not gone yet, but I can see the reality they soon will be. When they are, I’ll need the practice so I can stand alone.

I’ve chosen this single life for myself – for now. I left The Impossible Scot, came home from the UK. I can handle difficult people. I like snarky curmudgeons, find them endearing. What I cannot bear is constant confrontation, harping and bickering. I am a gentle person. It takes a lot to rile me to anger.

But once you do, I have teeth. Especially if my children are there.

I found out the Scot has obsessive issues, wounds from the past now barely concealing fury, outbursts of extraordinary intensity. He mistook my amiable personality for weakness. That’s a huge mistake. It takes far more strength to hold back from anger, to accept another person’s bad or merely irritating behavior and just let it go. You can anger or hurt me: I digest it in a moment, turn back around with a smile, and it’s gone.

Holding onto grievances is pointless.

Angry outbursts are not strength. They’re the exact opposite. Anger rots from the inside; lashing out at others is a misguided attempt to make them pay for hurts others have given.

I wish I could have been the healer, wish I’d have been able to step out far enough to see and understand in the moment. It’s become a great anchor, this regret. Until I stop grieving, let go of the niggling feeling the story’s not over, until I heal, I’m best on my own.

Man. Christmas sure brings out sentiment, doesn’t it.

 

Enough sentiment, let’s eat!

 

Part of healing is finding a new sense of direction. This is why I need 2018 to be a huge year, to eclipse 2017. I’m keeping Christmas small partly because I’m putting lots of time and energy into kicking 2018’s ass in advance.

I’m plotting and planning.

Hoping and dreaming.

Once that’s in place, I’ll be taking action.

I like this quiet Christmas Eve. Being alone doesn’t equate to loneliness. I have lots of people in my life, when I choose to socialize. I have my kids, great people I work with, I’ve joined and re-joined groups devoted to interests I share with others.

Loving alone time does not mean you hate people. Writing and reading are largely solitary pursuits. People like me require periods of solitude. It has nothing whatsoever to do with feelings about other people.

Well, most people.

I’m planning a trip to New Orleans next month, to help calm the wanderlust and get out of Chicago for a while. Unrelated to my big life plans – as far as I know, because life has had a remarkable ability to shock me – NOLA is a place of sultry, edgy beauty with strong ties to a specific part of American culture. It’s also home to strong echoes of the American literary past.

I hope I can make this trip happen. I’m already itching to get somewhere else.

It was nice taking this time to write a post on a major holiday. It feels luxurious I had the time to spare. I’m already at work composing my 2018 reading plan post. That’ll take a few days, but that’s okay. There’s another week left of 2017.

Merry Christmas to you all.

On the horizon: the next big thing

When you haven’t blogged for a fairly significant amount of time it’s all the harder writing a new post – partly due to the drag of guilt. Falling terribly behind, in this and obligations in general, embarrasses and discourages me. The longer a thing lies dormant, the bigger it looms.

Ultimately, it’s a goddamn blog, FFS. JUST WRITE SOMETHING.

I’ve been up to all sorts of things, the majority related to the settling back in process. Between furnishing my home, re-training for my job, reading and reviewing and getting myself out there socially, there’s not a lot of time to spare. I’ve reconnected to people and organizations, building new connections as well.

I’ve wasted no time.

What self-reflective time I have is taken up planning my future. Keeping new possessions light purposely, I’m unwilling to put down permanent roots just yet. Lessons learned in the process of moving to Scotland are still fresh. Previously inhabiting a two-bedroom apartment roomy enough but not overly large, I was shocked how long it took emptying it out.

So, so much stuff is a hindrance. It’s a lifestyle I won’t repeat.

I’m unwilling to settle where I am. Living someplace as beautiful as Scotland fed rather than quenched my wanderlust. What’s next is the question, what’s firing my excitement the knowledge I have no idea what the future holds. This time last year I’d have laughed had anyone suggested I’d call Scotland home for several months. It came from the blue, and no matter the ending I’m extremely grateful it happened. I wouldn’t exchange it for the world.

Given half a chance, I’d do it all over again.

Ten months remaining in my current lease, I’m busily plotting not just where I’ll go next but what I’ll do. The options are dizzying. Tempering it are the dull but necessary realities of life.

My ex-husband would roll his eyes, declaring it a result of my impetuous nature fed by the milder form of bipolar, but I have a good head on my shoulders. Sorry, pet, I don’t do boring. I’m glad for you that you found the conventional life you were dying to have all those years, but grateful beyond words you never managed to kill my fire. Points for effort on your part, though. It wasn’t for lack of trying.

I’m unafraid to leap, but careful to make sure there’s as soft a landing as I can manage waiting on the other side. The chances I take are measured. What looks whackadoodle from the outside is actually quite safe. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that, as it takes away the appearance of magic. But then, it’s still nuts measured against conventionality.

At least there’s that.

I wouldn’t expect any grand pronouncements just yet. I can say with a measure of confidence the planning will take a while. This time, I’m hoping for a longer-term commitment to whatever it is I choose. And I do have a few things in mind, she said, cryptically…

Until then, back to books, back to reading, and back to writing. Reviews are in process, my library is building up nicely, and I have all sorts of bookish opinions to share.

Here’s to great adventure. Never, never, never settle for less.

The moral (and mental) rightness of minimalism: more lessons learned

This topic keeps recurring for me. It’s a current focus of my life, a daily practice, as I continue the nesting process. It’s also an about-face, a total change from the old me.

Post-Scotland, I am not the person I was. I can’t immediately think of one way this isn’t a positive.

For years I’ve been spouting off about how I’d like to embrace minimalism. Paging through decorating ideas on Pinterest, it doesn’t take long to notice none of the slick interiors there looked the slightest bit like mine: books piled everywhere, papers on every surface, miscellaneous items sitting out on counters.

The elegance of minimalism.

 

The chaos of anti-minimalism.

It’s just plain stressful – not to mention expensive – owning so many things. There are items I not only haven’t touched in years, but can be reasonably certain I’ll never use again. And while I do hold books to a different standard, I still think there’s a limit extending even to that.

Selling or donating books you’ve read doesn’t qualify as heresy. Neither does recycling or giving away review books I’m done with, though I can’t imagine anyone wanting possession of a book I’ve scribbled all over. Then, books that are duplicates, of which I had an embarrassing number, including two copies of How the Scots Invented the Modern World.

Why?

Laziness and inattention: the twin scourges.

Two copies: whoops.

Admittedly, there are books I wish I hadn’t gotten rid of, losses that cause me pain. I’ve made trips back to Half Price Books trying to find those, with limited success. My Virginia Woolf diaries and essays are perhaps most painful, as well as a large collection of literary biographies. Several of these I will replace: bios of Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, etc. Others I’ll check out of the library as the urge strikes.

Books left boxed in the ex’s basement, the bulk of my “new” library.

I am replenishing my library, selectively. I bought back bios of the Brontes and Edith Wharton, Faulkner and Shirley Jackson. I’m picking up some of the best books of 2017, books I missed while away in the UK. The few dozen books I kept, left stored in my ex’s basement, are the best of the best, gems of my former collection. They include signed and inscribed copies, rare editions and out of print books, mostly.

What you value but can’t easily replace isn’t excessive.

Recent acquisitions.

I’m a librarian and supporter of the public library’s mission. when I worked in a library it was easy grabbing books off the shelves, bringing them home by the wheelbarrow-full. Exempt from fines, I admit I abused the privilege.

That I buy rather than make use of the library’s collection is a bit hypocritical, not to mention damaging to their mission. I made a trip to my local library over the past week, and got myself a new library card. The best of autumn books lists are running rampant, and I cannot and will not purchase all the books that tempt me.

 

A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life.

– Henry Ward Beecher

 

Here I sit in my new townhouse. Purposely furnishing it with lots of storage space, trunks and shelving and baskets largely bought at resale shops that tuck away into furniture. It surprises me I no longer own enough things to fill all the room I have. Some of the new stuff I bought even makes me feel nervous and jumpy. There’s already too much of it.

My new practice is to make a point of keeping track of everything coming in and out. Yes, I have space – much more in a two-story home – but this doesn’t necessarily mean I need to fill it. I hate junk drawers, hate rummaging through bits and bobs I paid money for, but turned out to be so useless or excessive I need a drawer devoted to them.

No one should have so many unneeded items in their possession. It’s unhealthy. I’m making a point of returning what I don’t need. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass, but all the little things add up – both money and space-wise.

Thrift store buying is another way of recycling – wicker table, $ 1

My experience having less, when I chucked most of my things preparing for the move abroad, proved enlightening. I felt less pressure, less frenzy and stress trying to find things amongst fewer possessions. I also prized the things I had more.

I like seeing empty space, and the tops of furniture. I’m not a total convert. There’s crap sitting around me as I type.

The biggest difference: I’m more conscious of what I spend, and what I’m spending it on. Fresh from several months in a country that recycles and consumes so much less, where people generally have less disposable income to squander, I’m much more conscious about using superfluous resources, excess and the differences between “want” and “need.”

I don’t mean to preach, but I hope some of this resonates. This concerns mental health, happiness and consumption, all in one go. There’s no downside to owning just what you need, plus enough excess to feel a bit extravagant. No harm in that, if you can afford it.

Dealing with less also grants more time to spend doing things that matter, less time shifting unneeded objects around, less hair-pulling and frustration. You cannot put a price on your time; it’s the one thing you cannot get back.

I learned a lot of important lessons this year, important ones I’d like to pass along.

Sharing wisdom is one of the points of life. What I’m changing is making me a happier, more productive person. I believe this is universal enough, important enough, to pass along.

 

 

A little book therapy goes a long way.

I miss the good old days when I had me a rich husband to pay for my subscription to the Sunday New York Times. There’s nothing on earth like a thick slab of newsprint slamming onto your driveway once a week, leaving a rectangle-shaped imprint in the asphalt. Even once I peeled off the sections I didn’t give a crap about, there was still enough reading material to keep me busy more than half the week.

Spoiler: It’s the Book Review section I lusted for most.

The lousy bastards keep sending me tempting half-price offers, and good lord I yearn, but post-Scotland my coffers are a whole lot emptier thanks to something called no income. I’ve been cutting costs across the board. My home is furnished with mostly thrifted stuff – high quality thrift, mind, I have a reputation to uphold – and I don’t even have TV service. My cell phone plan’s the lowest available, as is my internet. No no no, don’t say “in that case, you have extra money sitting around…”

I was kind of thinking that, then I remembered something: there are libraries. Libraries subscribe to newspapers.

Libraries are free.

Well, paid for via property taxes, which I don’t pay directly since I’m renting. But, you know.

I was sorely disappointed with the last two weeks’ NYTimes Books section. Usually satisfying for this lusty wench, it just wasn’t doing it for me.  But then, the attention span isn’t there, either.

SEE: disaster, recent.

If I’d read the entire Sunday paper, the slick adverts would have gotten my full attention. Lately, most days find me sitting here on the sofa, eyes wide from hours spent scrolling through Pinterest for hacks on rental-friendly, sexy fixes for all the ugly bits in my house, empty water bottles littering the faux wood (SEE: Fake) floor beside me.

I’m ridiculously focused on decor. When I’m not out relentlessly hunting for something to throw on my walls, I’m home staring at things other people have. It’s a sickness, but mostly a safe one. And it’s a whole lot cheaper than drugs. But dear god don’t bring up the subject around me or I’ll tell you how much I spent on every, single fecking square inch of my house.

Everything above the bookshelves, FORTY-FIVE DOLLARS!

I had better luck with the most recent Bookmarks Magazine. If you don’t know it, you need to look it up. While not comprehensive, it does a damn good job gathering newly published and soon-to-be released titles, gives brief blurbs, and assembles excerpts from some major review venues. They give a star rating – 1-5 – based on how positive the reviews are.

I likes it.

And I found me a few titles to beg for, I mean check out:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time to go a-whoring.

It’s not a bad idea forcing myself to crawl to the library and read the Sunday New York Times. Gets me out of the house, and gives me a reason to get dressed and brush my hair. It has the added benefit of being where people are, sitting amidst others riffling through pages and drinking coffee. The sound of pages turning is soothing to me.

Hey, is there an app for that?

If I get restless, there’s always the decorating magazines. If I’ve had no luck soliciting publishers to get those books above, you know I hear libraries have those, too.

But I just may subscribe to Bookmarks. A girl needs something in her mailbox besides junk.

No, that’s not a euphemism.