Scribbles

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I started on the sketches for a project years ago.  I doodled the first figures in the depth of my sadness when I miscarried the twins back in late 2013, added to it after the ectopic loss, made mock-ups of where I wanted the figures placed in the finished piece while I was sitting on the couch hemorrhaging in 2014 and 2015, and then dropped it for a couple of years.  When the embryo transfer failed in the fall of 2019, I pulled it back out and did part of the watercolor, then stuffed the pieces back in my sketchbook.  Maybe I was hoping I’d never feel the need to finish it.

This week, though, I took the pieces, put them together, and finished the background.  Decided not to extend the cowl of the middle figure, but rather, to have the hands and fabric float in the darkness.  Cut the final piece of fabric.  Ordered the glue to place them permanently.  After making those decisions, I find myself returning to the piece, debating whether to add more cowl/red to the middle figure, trying to decide if it’s really what I want it to look like.  Do I want to put it on a mat to add a tiny bit more background?  What color?  Even after posting the photo to face.book as a final product.

It is certainly not representing the whole story, the parts that came to fruition.  Maybe there’s something about a piece that never quite seems to be finished.  It’s the part of story containing all those losses, the loose ends that never quite seem to tie up, the cycles that didn’t take, the babies that couldn’t form as more than quickly scribbled initial sketches on the black and white ultrasound screen.

Burr, Sir

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I went out for a walk this morning – my first quasi-“workout” since the D&C.  I figured I’d start slow with a good brisk walk, running and weights can come another day.  My playlist was paused where I left it the day before the ultrasound and it all crashed down.  I’d been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack as I walked that day in the life Before, dancing along a little to the triumphant lyrics of “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)”: “My Eliza’s expecting…gotta start a new nation, gotta meet my son!”

Well, cuss words.  That was unhelpful.

But I like Hamilton too much to surrender it to the pile of “stuff that makes me sad” without a fight, so I flipped around in the soundtrack until I landed on “Wait For It”.  The song is nemesis and narrator Aaron Burr’s big, expository number that humanizes and complicates the character who could easily be written as a straight up antagonist in the story.

Burr, played by Leslie Odom Jr., sings of his caution, restraint, and his awareness of carrying the family honor forward: “I am the one thing in life I can control / I am inimitable, I am an original / I’m not falling behind or running late / I am lying in wait! / Hamilton faces an endless uphill climb / He has something to prove, he has nothing to lose…I’m willing to wait for it.”

When I first got to actually watch Hamilton a few weeks ago, one thing that struck me was how unlikeable Alexander Hamilton – the character – felt at times.  I rolled my eyes at least once at the earnest, constantly striving Hamilton who always seems to be in the right place at the right time – in addition to all his passion and talent (as well as totally willing to humiliate his wife to save his own place in history).  Burr is measured, thoughtful, and careful.  I don’t know tons about the actual, historical men’s true personalities, but the way the musical is written, it’s difficult not to feel for Burr at various moments.

By most conventional measures, Burr was a pretty lucky guy: good family name, good education, served in the Revolutionary War as an officer, successful lawyer, became a US Senator, and ultimately Vice President.  It’s a fairly impressive CV as they go, even with the losses and mistakes that Burr incurred up until the duel that derailed much for him.  But I get it.  I get the character of Burr as written in this musical.  I get the jealousy, the frustration, the sense of having done every d*mn thing right, having so much and still winding up ultimately locked out of (an iteration of) “the room where it happens”.

As the composer and lyricist of Hamilton Lin Manuel Miranda put it “I feel like I have been Burr in my life as many times as I have been Hamilton. I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve seen friends and colleagues zoom past us, to success, or to marriage, or to homeownership, while we lingered where we were—broke, single, jobless. And you tell yourself, ‘Wait for it.’”

I wonder, a bit, if this is one of the reasons Hamilton resonates so much with audiences.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more or submit your own, head over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.  

One Day At A Time

Thank you for all the kindness and well-wishes – very, very much appreciated.

~*~

My ultrasound last week had been scheduled with the high-risk OB’s nurse midwife.  In a very large practice of 10+ physicians and lots of NPs, it just happened that she was the one with an open appointment that day.  I am so, so incredibly glad that it worked out that way.  When the ultrasound tech didn’t see an embryo/fetus anywhere, the high-risk OB himself – the man that got us through the absolute sh*t show of my pregnancy with and delivered E, who I trust totally – came in to give me the final word (and performed my D&C the next day).  I appreciated that immensely.  Not getting bad news from a stranger or someone who didn’t know my history made such a difference, especially since, thanks to Covid-19, I was by myself at the ultrasound.

The D&C was definitely the right option for me in this particular circumstance.  The pregnancy symptoms are, thankfully, abating.  It’s a particular bit of insult to injury to have breast pain so bad that it was waking me up at night – including the night before surgery – when there’s no actual baby to justify the discomfort.  That was one of the more frustrating parts of the whole situation: my symptoms were really major this time, more so than with any of the previous four pregnancies.  I sort of assumed that symptoms were an encouraging sign, but apparently not in this case.

A friend brought us a meal afterwards.  I actually cried because I was grateful – it was SO nice and so incredibly welcome since we got home from the hospital around 5:30 and none of the adults were up to making anything.

~*~

I’m struggling a bit to hold the dual realities that I don’t want another pregnancy and also I want to be pregnant right now.  The idea of going through the two week wait(s), seeing the two lines, beta HCG draws, the first ultrasound, the waiting through anatomy scans, viability, praying to get to term – provided I got to any of those points at all – makes me feel vaguely nauseated.  I just don’t have anything left of whatever propelled me through all the other fertility misadventures.  At the same time, I want desperately to be holding an ultrasound picture of an 8-week baby and awaiting the next ultrasound with nervous anticipation.  I want to be looking forward to my due date in March, sourcing a low-cost maternity wardrobe and waiting for those kicks.

Basically, I don’t want a replacement.  I want this specific pregnancy except that I want it to work out with a healthy baby at the end.

That’s an impossibility and it aches.

~*~

Moving on is the one thing I actually have some mild optimism about in the better moments – it will take time (probably a lot more than I’d like it to) and some days will feel impossible but that it will happen.  We’ll work on getting rid of the baby stuff still in the basement, finishing up a few projects to really make our spare room the craft/study/music area for the girls, and…birth control.

We know we’re going the permanent route at some future point, but with Covid-19, some insurance realities, and still reeling emotionally from this experience, it’s just not good timing to go through that process immediately.  I set up my follow-up visit slightly further out than usual to allow my uterus to heal so we can look at the full range of effective non-permanent options out there to hold in the meantime.  The last thing we need right now is “surprise!”  Which feels incredibly weird after nearly a decade of trying to get pregnant, wanting to be pregnant, and desperately hoping for (or at least being open to) a pregnancy.

It’s time, though.

Alpha Omega

Trigger warning: miscarriage

When my second daughter was born, I used to rock her doing that sigh-sing-song of random syllables to comfort her.  “Ohhhh-meg-ahhh,” I’d murmur, slipping part of her name into it.  “Ohhh, Meg, ahhh.”

At some point, a family member heard me doing this and asked if I was making a reference to this being the last kid – as in “Alpha and Omega” being the beginning and end of the Greek alphabet (lots of science people in the family).  “Nah,” I said.  “Just sings nicely together.”

It stuck with me, though.

When we transferred the final embryo last fall and it didn’t stick, I didn’t feel “done”.  Arthur was done, but I never had that sense of finality.  We argued on and off for months, even after I got rid of my maternity clothes and some baby gear.  Even when common sense, age, and a pandemic made having an argument about another kid feel beyond ridiculous.

And in May, after arguments, counseling, and every kind of back-and-forth, we decided to take one last crack at the thing.  And lo and behold, there were two lines.  And an HCG number that looked fantastic and was rising beautifully.  And we prepared.

I went in today for my first ultrasound at 8 weeks 2 days.  There was a sac, measuring a week behind.  No baby or yolk sac or anything else in there.  I watched as the tech scanned over and around, thorough and careful to be sure.  They asked me about my HCG numbers.  The doctor came in and confirmed what I had already texted Arthur.

Blighted ovum.

D*mn.

I’m scheduled for a D&C tomorrow because I have, quite frankly, been through enough suffering without adding horrible miscarriage cramping/bleeding into the mix.  I’m also very symptomatic as far as pregnancy symptoms and I’d like that to stop sooner rather than later.  It does not matter any more if my uterus scars.

Because we are done.

For real.

For certain.

Five pregnancies is a lot on the body and soul, especially adding in all the other factors like IVF and PPROM and now the third loss.  It’s enough.  I’m done.

My older daughter is named for Samwise Gamgee’s oldest daughter in Lord of the Rings.  If somehow walking out of Mordor with her is the biggest battle we faced, this is the day we go to the Grey Havens and bid good-bye to something precious and special and end this final chapter.  Watching as those figures board the ship to something beyond our world and knowledge, tears streaming freely.

Then we go home because even now, I feel the promise author Tolkien gave to his character Sam in the book, to live a long, happy life and that someday, someday, the torn-in-two feeling would no longer be so horribly acute.

We asked a question at the beginning, at the alpha point of this journey eight years ago.  We have our answers now: two miraculous girls.

Today we are at the omega.

Rooting Out

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One thing I’m still getting used to with home ownership is the ongoing stream of projects and maintenance.  Having rented for the vast majority of my adult life (12-13 years), I’m familiar with reorganizing and cleaning, but landscaping and painting – among others – are new ventures.

After a couple of years of living here, we decided it was time to tackle the outside of the house in a meaningful way.  The first year we lived here, we mostly just watched to see what plants came up in the yard and beds.  Last year, we evicted The Shrub That Ate Our Front Window, put in some new beds around the patio, and placed fresh landscaping fabric/pebbles around our firepit.  This year, we realized that the gorgeous silver maple tree in the backyard was planted just barely far enough away from the house and we also didn’t particularly like the Norway spruce in the front.

We called in an arborist to evaluate the silver maple.  Silver maples have shallow, invasive roots – the kind that can crack foundations and get into sewer lines.  The minimum distance to plant these trees from a house is around 20 feet, and ours is 21 feet from the base of the house.  The tree was actually one of the things we loved about the house when we bought it.  It’s one of those perfect trees for bird feeders, for climbing, and for shade.  I hoped it didn’t need cut down, but if it was a choice between the tree and our foundation, it was a no-brainer.

The arborist came out, looked at all of our trees and, happily, told us he could save the maple with no major issues.  In the fall, he’ll come and prune the roots to prevent them from reaching the house and take a limb off that’s starting to stretch up to the point where it will eventually grow over the roof.  He told us that the spruce in the front yard wasn’t going to invade the foundation since spruces apparently don’t have those kinds of roots, but that it’s planted too close to the house and showing signs of stress.  The arborist advised taking it out, and since we didn’t like it anyway, we’re looking forward to having it down sometime this summer.

One of the things the arborist noted in the evaluation was that when the spruce comes out, the stump grinder would damage the yucca plants at the base.  Well, the yuccas had gotten entirely overgrown and weren’t really in my vision for what I eventually want in that bed.  We decided to take them out.

Turns out, yuccas grow thick, fibrous roots that are an absolute nightmare to hack through.  What we thought would take one person about an hour took two of us about two and a half hours of hard work.  One of us grabbed the top of the plant and pulled, the other dug the shovel in over and over to break the roots.  The end result was worth it, however, and it all looks much neater.

House Before Yuccas

Before, with the yuccas in place.

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After – we didn’t even realize there were landscaping rocks under all of that!

Next up is getting rid of the bush behind the pine.  Having pulled a similar one out last summer, I know what we’re in for there.  Eventually, we’ll get to the fun part: figuring out and planting the landscaping we actually want.

This post is a part of Microblog Monday.  If you want to read more posts or submit your own, head over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

Currently Reading: The Widows of Malabar Hill

Mysteries are one of my defaults when I’m looking for a new book.  I had started Michelle McNamara’s nonfiction about the search for the Golden State Killer I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, but while it was engrossing, it also gave me literal nightmares.  I shelved it a little over a third of the way through.  Not the right book for right now.

Fortunately, Modern Mrs. Darcy had a blog post with a list of gentle mysteries (not too gruesome or disturbing) that came out right as I was casting about for new reading material.  On the list was The Widows of Malabar Hill (by Sujata Massey) centering on a female solicitor in 1920s India.  Truthfully, I picked it up initially because it was the first one on the list available at the library for e-book borrowing, but I was pulled into the story almost immediately and glad that I had been able to nab it.

Protagonist Perveen Mistry is a young Parsi woman who studied law at Oxford and now an associate in her father’s law office.  While she cannot present cases in court as a barrister, she works as the first female solicitor in Bombay.  When the law office is presented with three Muslim widows who wish to put their inheritance into a specialized trust, Perveen is sent to speak to the women who live in purdah, an enclosed life where no males outside of the family are permitted.  Within the house, Perveen finds secrets, simmering rivalries, and, eventually, the murder of the women’s male protector.

One of the qualities I really enjoyed about The Widows of Malabar Hill was author Massey’s deft ability to make India’s pluralism and society in the 1920s comprehensible to someone like me who knows relatively little about India.  Perveen and her family are Parsi: descended from Iranians who fled religious persecution to India somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries CE and practicing Zoroastrianism.  Massey also brings Muslims, Hindus, and the British into the story, picking through the social distinctions and interactions.  These differences bear heavily on the story as Perveen must understand Muslim law surrounding inheritance to work with her clients, navigate the social conventions around her friendship with Alice Hobson-Jones (the daughter of a high-ranking British official), and the Parsi marriage laws that have personal significance for Perveen.

Perveen is a compelling character to anchor the story.  Massey gives her protagonist realistic strengths and weaknesses – Perveen is upper class, well-educated, and intelligent, but Massey doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of being a trailblazer or the exhausting, constant explanations Perveen has to give around what she does for a living.  Perveen doesn’t fall entirely into the “plucky heroine” convention that often happens with women in novels.  Her path to becoming a solicitor is more complicated and the triumph of becoming a solicitor is more muted than just the usual sexism and misogyny to overcome (though these certainly factor in).  Massey also makes Perveen’s sex an asset as well as a liability; as a female, she is the only solicitor who can go behind the screens to meet the women clients in purdah.  I also really liked the fact that Perveen has a genuinely supportive and kind family who love her and want to see her happy and successful.

The novel had two distinct plotlines: the mystery itself, which kept me guessing, but also Perveen’s backstory.  While sometimes fleshing out a character as an equal storyline can detract in a mystery, in this case, it blends well with the central plot.

I really enjoyed The Widows of Malabar Hill and am excited to pick up the second book in the series, The Satapur Moonstone.  It’s wonderful to find a new series that is as promising as this one!

Good Bread

One of my absolute favorite things in life is excellent bread.  I have a particular affinity for the chewy, crusty, open-structured artisan loaves that have proliferated in recent years – to the point where they’re easily available in most grocery stores.  Over the last few years, I often asked Arthur to grab one on his lunch to bring home for dinner that night.

Obviously, the pandemic changed that.

I’ve been baking since I was small, but artisan loaves have always eluded me.  Commercial bakeries have steam-injected ovens that help immensely with the crust texture and while I’ve tried most of the suggestions for home bakers (ice cubes to the bottom of the oven, small pan of water, throwing water onto a hot baking sheet underneath the bread), I’ve never gotten the combination of chewy/crunchy that comes so easily from the grocery store.

Since dropping by the grocery store isn’t the usual quick stop now and when I’ve tried to order artisan loaves the store hasn’t had any, I decided to tackle the project.  Armed with baker’s tools amassed over nearly fifteen years of adult life and cooking and fortifying myself with some of the bread episodes from The Great British Baking Show, I pulled out the flour, yeast, salt, and water that was supposed to turn into excellence.

I started with French baguettes following this recipe.  While my rise times were slightly longer than the recipe indicated, a cast-iron skillet preheated in the oven with boiling water poured over to create the steam was a revelation.  I don’t know how, exactly, it’s different than the other methods of making steam, but it worked better than anything I’ve tried before.  I suspect it has something to do with the way the skillet holds and diffuses the heat in the oven.  Leaving the baguettes in the cooling oven with the door cracked a couple of inches also helped the crust texture – much better than putting them on a rack on the counter.  I cut the number of loaves to two (I like a slightly thicker loaf) and while it’s not quite commercial bakery perfection, it’s also pretty darned good.

Ciabatta for sandwiches came yesterday (recipe here).  With my trusty stand mixer to knead the incredibly wet dough and a baking stone, I was amazed at how easy this particular bread turned out.  It also was every bit as good as anything I buy in the store, making me wonder why I’ve been paying $2.50 – $3.50 a loaf for years.  The crust was perfect, the open texture fully present.

The irony, of course, is now I have no dinner parties to plan, no people to host, and no small groups for places like church to throw open the doors.  Bread feels like it should be baked for people.

There’s a lot of clashing think-pieces generated by the pandemic and quarantine: chance to learn a new skill!  Collective trauma!  Optimize your life!  It’s okay to not be productive!  We can figure this out!  We’re all sitting in the corner with no attention span!  Learning to bake these loaves seems to fall under all of the above for me.  It feels like the kind of thing that I could post to social media as proof that I am doing great under quarantine, but that belies the quiet desperation and anxiety that’s somewhat soothed by shaping dough, the crash that comes after the picture of the pretty loaves: what’s next?

I don’t know.  Nobody knows.

It reminds me a bit of when I was pregnant with the pregnancy that turned out to be ectopic, that rollercoaster of hope dashing into unpleasant realities.  Desperately clinging to any good sign, cognizant of the many bad ones, hoping for the best, all with an underlying suspicion that this is not going to turn out well.  One of the qualities of trauma that the TV shows tend to elide is the long stretches of waiting and boredom and worry.  The bad news is preceded by hours, days, weeks of build-up.  It’s sitting with a book in my hands, unable to focus more than a few minutes, counting the time before the next lab result, the next ultrasound, when the doctor arrives, the phone call (then) or the next news report, the next zoom gathering, the next phone call (now).  Trying to find ways to fill the time.  It could be better.  It could be worse.

I miss people.  It’s a weird thing for an introvert to admit.  I miss running into acquaintances at the zoo or the grocery and chatting, small talk that I usually feel awkward making and used to dread a bit but now feels like a lifeline.  I miss my parents visiting, miss hosting two of my SILs for dinner periodically, miss visiting with BIL/SIL and niece and nephew, having my MIL and FIL come over.  I miss choir and church and the collective responses: Peace be with you!  And also with you.  And also with you.  And also with you.  The absolution, the communion, and then the other communion of doughnuts and institutional coffee and talk.

Perfecting recipes feels like faith.  Faith that someday there will be dinner parties and small groups and people to bake for again.

At least there’s good bread to eat while I wait.

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The ciabatta loaves.

Currently Reading: The Splendid and the Vile

My library system has long done e-book borrowing, but in the last few months, they carried a program they’ve long used for print books over to the electronic borrowing system.  High demand books are available for a seven-day borrowing period with no renewal possible (instead of the usual 21-day borrow) but with no waiting on the long hold lists.  As someone who reads fast, I’m enjoying this program and have been able to get several books on my to-be-read list that I hadn’t anticipated reading for several months.

One of these books is Erik Larson’s new nonfiction The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.  I was engrossed by several of Larson’s previous books, including his contrasting saga of serial killer H.H. Holmes/architect Daniel H. Burnham during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair The Devil in the White City (there are true crime stories and then there are the ones that give a person nightmares, and for me, this was definitely the latter) and Dead Wake, Larson’s account of the sinking of Lusitania.

While I’ve read a fair amount of WWII history over the years, my history work in that era has largely focused on central to Eastern Europe/Russia, so other than mild familiarity with Churchill’s endless quotability and the basic outlines of Britain’s perseverance through the Blitz, I went in knowing relatively little about the details of this particular battle.

As with his other books, Larson is good at taking a sprawling story and lasering in on a few characters in it to explore the whole.  Churchill himself, of course, is the main focus and a colorful character, but Larson also brings in Churchill’s daughter Mary, son Randolph, daughter-in-law Pamela, wife Clementine, as well as advisers such as Frederick Lindemann, Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) and Jock Colville.  Larson also throws in some fascinating snippets of ordinary Britons to round out the picture, including the tragic story of the Café de Paris bombing.

One of the stories Larson covers – that I’m a little baffled I had never heard in years of history classes – is that of high-ranking Nazi Rudolph Hess parachuting into Scotland, being arrested by a farmer, and Hess stating that he had a message for the Duke of Hamilton.  It’s a thoroughly bizarre tale that historians can’t quite explain, but Larson’s recounting of it is fascinating and vivid.  The careful look at Churchill’s advisors also really distinguish this book, as many of them are quite noteworthy in their own rights and incredibly key to many of Churchill’s accomplishments.  Larson fleshes out their personalities and quirks – for example, Lindemann was a teetotaler, vegetarian, and an ascetic – making them less grim historical personages and more human.  Larson’s a gifted storyteller, taking all the strands and weaving them into a very readable narrative.

It’s either a fantastic or awful book to read in the current moment, because there are times the situation feels eerily familiar with everything that’s going on today.  A passage about the bombings during the Blitz resonated deeply with me: “The raids generated a paradox: The odds that any one person would die on any one night were slim, but the odds that someone, somewhere in London would die were 100 percent.  Safety was a product of luck alone.”

I found it a good read overall.  Larson doesn’t sugarcoat the very real death tolls, destruction, or the ongoing concern that Britain was going to be invaded by Germany throughout.  Churchill’s anxiety and that of his advisors is palpable at times.  At the same time, Larson manages to also highlight the resilience that helped Britain persevere through the bombings.

Step, Step

We take everything one day at a time these days.  I’ve heard that as advice a lot over the years (and mostly ignored it), but now it’s all but impossible to do anything else.  It’s strange to see our normally bustling calendar stripped bare of notations, just the date in each square. We’ve been listening to the Frozen 2 soundtrack in our house and one of the songs, titled “The Next Right Thing” has a resonance it’s impossible to miss right now:

Take a step, step again

It is all that I can do

The next right thing.

In a moment I’ve been dreading since the news broke about the Life Care home in Seattle back in February and I more fully began to understand what we were dealing with, my grandfather passed away last week, Covid-19 the most likely cause of death.  The staff at his nursing home took great care of him and for him and I am grateful for them and their good work.  We grieve our private loss, but I know we are also grieving in a community that extends from Italy to Spain to China, across the United States, around the entire world as the virus grimly marches forward.  Friends have lost family members or had relatives seriously ill.  Others are laid off or furloughed and worried.  Still others are parted from living loved ones that they desperately miss.  So many unique losses for so many people, so much collective sadness.  I haven’t decorated the plain wreath I hung on our door at the start of Lent or put up flowers to replace the bare branches in my vases.  No matter what the church calendar may say, the light has not burst forth yet in this season.

And with the dawn, what comes then?

When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again…

Yesterday morning, when Arthur got ready to leave for work, the car refused to start.  This was not a total surprise as we knew the battery’s getting old and we’re trying not to do too much with it since we know we’re going to most likely be buying a new vehicle in the fall.  With no time to try to jump it right then, we hustled everyone into the other car and I drove Arthur to work.

It was the most novel, lovely thing, just going out and driving an essential 30-minute round-trip.

The route to Arthur’s work is fairly scenic, which helps.  There was a heron wading in the marsh and the sun shining across the waters.  After weeks of not leaving the house for days at a time other than work and picking up groceries every once in a while, though, it was such a strange, pleasant feeling to drive further than my extremely short commute.

It’s funny how these little events that I barely would have noticed in The Time Before are taking on such significance now.  Sitting on the porch swing as the weather gets nicer has become a welcome break from indoors.  Having a conversation with a neighbor across the yard and safely socially-distant is wonderful.  We watch the birds at our feeders, mostly goldfinches now.  There are also some events that never would have happened in The Time Before: we got to watch our local Air Force wing take the fighter planes for a flyover to salute the hospitals and all the healthcare workers.

We are – like so many others – okay and also not okay.

We stay home.  Go to essential jobs.  So far, all healthy.  Wait.

But break it down to this next breath

This next step

This next choice is one that I can make…

The next right thing.

 

Currently Reading: Wolf Hall

I’ve had Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel Wolf Hall on my bookshelf for years.  With Tudor history as an interest (my pen name here derives from one of Henry VIII’s queens) and this being one of the most hailed historical fictions about the period in recent years, it seems strange that I’ve never gotten around to reading it, but as I progressed through infertility, it got a bit too pointed to read about women who suffered awful fates for not bearing the required (male) child.  With the final book in the trilogy having recently come out and my last infertility treatment finished, I decided to give it another try.

The novel centers on Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII’s chief ministers – more what I’d term one of Henry VIII’s “fixers”.  Cromwell, a clever lawyer most famous for his take-down of Anne Boleyn, is a tricky historical figure typically portrayed as a villain (often in contrast to his contemporary, literally canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, Sir Thomas More).  Like More, Cromwell paid for his service to Henry VIII with his head – though Henry later regretted Cromwell’s execution.  Mantel, instead of focusing on More, uses her imagination and history to rehabilitate Cromwell’s reputation, making him a sympathetic, multi-dimensional character.

Mantel has written about her own infertility and endometriosis, most notably in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost.  It’s incredibly fascinating to see how she tackles having, losing, and wishing for children in this story that turns so sharply on birth and heritage.  In modern times, when having children is (sometimes) more of a choice one way or the other, Henry VIII is sometimes seen as a bit of a curiosity in his desperation for a male heir.  Historically, however, Henry’s own father Henry VII won the crown of England through combat, defeating Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth.  Henry VII (Lancaster) then married the leading lady from the rival house, Elizabeth of York, to try to bring together the warring factions.  Civil war was not a particularly distant memory, there were still members of royal clans in England with some claim to the throne, and Henry VIII was well aware that war was a very real possibility if he did not produce a male heir.  Mantel keenly allows all of these to intersect early on in a meditation from one of Henry VIII’s cardinals, Thomas Wolsey, speaking to Cromwell: “’Imagine this.  You are a man of some thirty-five years of age.  You are in good health and of hearty appetite…your joints are supple, your bones support you, and in addition you are King of England.  But.’  He shakes his head.  ‘But!  If only he wanted something simple.  The Philosopher’s Stone.  The elixir of youth.  One of those chests that occur in stories, full of gold pieces…Now the chest of gold I have hopes of, and the elixir, all the rest.  But where shall I begin looking for a son to rule his country after him?’”

It is possibly one of the best bits I have ever read on the difficulty of not having the children one wishes.  Mantel sums it up so neatly, pointing out that even magical elixirs are easier to come by than children in some situations.

The novel never rushes anywhere – at around 600 pages, it’s not a quick read – but Mantel has a way of mixing descriptive passages with short spurts of action.  She lingers on sumptuous fabrics as well as gory executions, inviting the reader to witness both.  Many characters given more sympathetic portrayals elsewhere in fiction, in this novel are presented in a less than flattering light – More as a torturer of innocents, Katherine of Aragon as a deeply stubborn woman who refused to yield, and Anne Boleyn becoming a shrill and deeply unpleasant woman*.  All this carefully contrasted to the coolheaded Cromwell, who, in addition to his historically recorded calculating nature, given a genuine love for his children, his wife, and his wards.

It’s a fascinating reversal and goes to show how history and reputation often depend heavily on the writers in charge.  While Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and desperation for a male heir was a major reason for Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, another component of that schism was the wealth of the monasteries and RCC in England.  Henry, having spent his parsimonious father’s wealth and perennially broke, got the almost irresistible chance to take over the immense properties when he declared himself head of the church.  Cromwell was instrumental in making that happen.  Mantel takes Cromwell from a ruthlessly greedy schemer to a believer in church reformation that sees the monasteries as places of corruption, preying on the faithful.

Even though there are no mysteries or spoilers in that all is well-worn history, with her choice of one of the most unlikely protagonists in the historical record, Mantel keeps the story fresh.  I just purchased the next installment, the ominously titled Bring Up the Bodies, covering the fall of Anne Boleyn.

* Anne Boleyn is a tough historical character to tease out accurately in terms of personality.  Historical records tend to see her as either the martyred, saintly mother of Elizabeth I and tout some of her better deeds, particularly her well-known strength as she came to her execution, or they tend to see her as a terrible woman who sent good people to their deaths, broke the Church, and generally a nasty, temperamental piece of work.  The best source material for Anne’s life come from the ambassadors to the court, particularly Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who was a staunch supporter of Katherine of Aragon.  There’s no denying that Anne did alienate key supporters and appears to have been quite cruel toward her step-daughter, Mary.  It’s hard to say, though, whether or not some of the other behavior attributed to her was quite as malignant as certain accounts give.  There’s also very little doubt that Anne was murdered on trumped-up charges, and as Chapuys notes, showed great courage, admirability, and grace in the face of her impending death.  Perhaps Anne was all of these things.