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!

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.

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. 

Currently Reading: “Followers”

When I finally came up in the library queue to borrow and started reading Followers (by Megan Angelo), my mind immediately jumped to a technological dystopia I read several years ago called The Circle (by Dave Eggers).  The novels definitely have some similarities: young, ambitious female protagonists, social media manipulation, a backlash, and a futuristic bent where it all goes out of control in ways that explore society’s current use of technology/social media.  Initially, I almost found myself less interested in Followers because of the similarities, but I’m glad I kept reading.

In The Circle, main character Mae goes to work at a social media company representing a sort of mash-up of Face.book and Goo.gle that has forced people to use their real names/identities for the product and keeps going further and further, finally launching a campaign using Mae as the face that insists privacy is a form of theft (if you happen to have seen the movie version, it has an entirely different ending from the book).  In Followers, Orla and her roommate collaborate to make the roommate social media famous, leading to all kinds of issues for them personally and when worldwide events overtake their personal lives, there’s a huge loss of privacy.  Both novels describe a sort of Faustian bargain for their protagonists.

However, there’s a really crucial divergence between the novels that made Followers ultimately more compelling to me than The Circle.  In The Circle, Mae is what I’d refer to as a true believer – despite her qualms at times, she’s a convert, a zealot, and ultimately believes in what she’s selling.  Orla in Followers is far more cynical, aware of what she’s doing, understanding that she’s giving up pieces of her soul in return for pursuing fame and fortune.  That deep, gnawing unease, along with Orla and other character’s ultimate fates, give Followers a certain messiness and emotional resonance that The Circle lacks.

One place I think Angelo really nails an idea is when she talks about loneliness and the way social media can sort of exacerbate it, despite the seeming connection.  At one point, Angelo speaks through Orla, who has a history of painful isolation and a longing for real friendship to describe this: “Every scheme they brought to life together, every drink they shared without wiping the other’s spit from the bottle, every drunk ride home with their feet in each other’s laps – to Orla, it had been everything, an end, but to [other character] it had only been means.”  Angelo masterfully throws in small but realistic details to illustrate the way some of the relationships are a performance, down to the food purchased seemingly kindly but the character it is purchased for can’t eat it, something that would have been considered if the gesture had been truly thoughtful rather than just window-dressing.

Angelo also manages to invoke the way trauma can create a permanent mark on people.  At one point, she writes: “He thinks it is an old story.  But for [character], the story never ends.”  Along with that, Angelo also explores the impact of what it looks like to live with the very real carnage the virtual can invoke.  A moment when one character looks at another and explains that they’ve been attempting to humanize the other character and find some sort of grace had me considering the way we forgive (or don’t) and how we can so easily reduce people to caricatures, stereotypes, or the sum of their virtual profiles – and how social media can sometimes make this far easier.

Ultimately, though, it’s the strange sort of hope Angelo has in humanity that pulled even the clunkier bits of the novel together for me.  As one character puts it, “…she knew, from having a mother who knit, that an experienced purler could change her design, if she just changed her mind in time.”  I really like the idea that a fresh start isn’t necessarily starting over, it’s figuring out how to live a full life with the mistakes and regrets and unfulfilled wishes, changing the design without throwing away the material.

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Content notes for this book, though trying to be vague so as not to spoil: those in the adoption triad may find this one has some tough moments.  Also for suicide.  

Variety Is The Spice Of Life

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It’s weird how time passes – the minutes or hours often seem long, but then suddenly, I’m in the middle of a new week or a new month.  What I’ve been doing with those minutes and hours is a mishmash:

  • Finished painting the basement. I have cream paint down the stairwell and along one long wall, then a sea-glass green to the other three walls (Benjamin Moore Windswept and Robin’s Nest if you’re curious).  It feels much lighter and airier than the blue-gray color that was there before and while I was a little worried – as always – that I wouldn’t like the colors, I love them.  I had wondered if my “anti-accent” wall would be too much (and thus should paint the whole basement in the sea-glass) or if the three colored walls would feel oppressive (and thus should paint everything cream) but the balance turned out nicely.
  • Now we’re on to the basement steps, which involves sanding the rough lumber that’s there. I’m pretty sure these were originally carpet-covered, but for some reason the carpet was removed and a dark blue paint slapped down. Not great looking and, because I have some sensory issues, I hated the texture on my feet.  The trick now is to sand enough to make them feel decent underfoot but not so much that the paint doesn’t stick.  We bought stair paint in the same cream and sea-glass green as the rest of the basement.  The steps themselves will get the cream, while the risers will be sea-glass.  Then we’ll throw some thin microfiber treads on the main part of the steps.  Hopefully it will look good (at least better) once it’s done.
  • I read Ariel Levy’s memoir The Rules Do Not Apply and Sarah DeGregorio’s Early: An Intimate History of Premature Birth and What it Teaches Us About Being Human. Both made me tear up for different reasons, both were excellent, and I’m hoping to delve into these with a more in-depth review here soon! (Content note – Levy’s memoir involves a stillbirth and DeGregorio’s also delves into neonatal loss.)
  • Started the paperwork to register E for kindergarten. This is awesome and honestly, pretty emotional.  Kindergarten was the thing I used to hang onto in the hospital and the NICU and as we went to specialist appointments and PT/OT/ST sessions, as in “someday, she’s going to be in kindergarten, we are going to make it…somehow”.  I’d picture her getting ready for her first day, beyond the terror that a simple cold would kill her, beyond the bradycardia episodes, and the monitors.  I really cannot believe we’re now so close.
  • Managed to finish a project for work on condensing some “good points” from continuing education course I did for the rest of my unit. It’s not a huge thing, but I’m really pleased with how it turned out.
  • Confessed to my choir director some long-term and (to me) embarrassing deficiencies in my music reading abilities. He was totally non-judgmental and basically told me that if we don’t admit what we don’t know, we never learn.  I’ve been meeting with him to remedy those and I’m excited because I’m actually learning how to do some of these things now!
  • Because we bit the bullet and went for the Dis.ney+ subscription service, Arthur and I decided to start watching the Marvel/Avengers movies as it feels like a lot of people talk about these. Have now seen “Captain America”.

What are you up to these days?

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

Currently Reading: Midnight in Chernobyl and The Radium Girls

Sometimes, when I read nonfiction history – particularly well-known history – I find myself sort of wishing that I didn’t know how badly the story is going to turn out for various people or places.  It’s hard not to wish there was some way to sort of tap the people on the shoulder and tell them not to go or stay or do whatever they’re about to do.  The last two books I read were heavy on this particular sense.

In a weird sort of reading twist, I wound up reading both Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster (Adam Higgenbotham) and The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (Kate Moore) within a couple weeks of one another.  Both were excellent, well-researched, and truly fascinating – though, fair warning, also pretty gruesome at times.

While Chernobyl has become sort of shorthand for nuclear disaster and I knew from taking some Russian and Eastern European history classes in college (the Chernobyl power plant is located in what is now Ukraine) that what had happened was terrible, I never really appreciated the true impact of the meltdown.  Higgenbotham’s book walks through the major design flaw in the Soviet RBMK nuclear reactors of the time, the technicians and workers on duty at the time of the disastrous test, and then, of course, the aftermath, including the Soviet government reaction.  As someone who grew up as the USSR was crumbling (the Berlin Wall fell when I was 7) and who often heard Mikhail Gorbachev hailed as a champion of openness, Higgenbotham’s dissection of how much cover-up was done by Gorbachev’s government in the wake of Chernobyl was particularly eye-opening.

I was surprised at how well Higgenbotham managed to translate complex nuclear concepts into something even a very non-engineering/physics person could reasonably understand.  He definitely describes the scenes vividly – the descriptions of the incredibly radioactive chunks of graphite from control rods being thrown everywhere around the plant and people touching these as well as the meltdown of the core of the reactor are evocative and horrifying.  I also hadn’t realized that Chernobyl had continued to produce electricity until 2000 when the final reactor was turned off and the plant decommissioned.

The Radium Girls was no less interesting.  A biography of the women employed by two plants from 1917 to the 1930s who were hired to paint glowing dials on clock and watch faces, many of the women eventually suffered extreme health complications and death from radium poisoning.  Women were taught to put the brushes they used to paint the dials in their mouths to get the point fine enough to do the detail work on the clock and watch faces, which meant they absorbed a considerable amount of radium through just their daily work.  I found myself (with a modern appreciation for the dangers of radium) blanching when I read accounts of how women would wear their best dresses to the factory so that the dresses would get coated with radium dust and literally glow during evenings out.

Unfortunately, radium tends to collect in the bones for a variety of horrifying effects, ranging from bones riddled with holes, bone marrow that no longer produced blood cells correctly, sarcomas, and terrible dental abscesses.  As well, infertility, miscarriage, and stillbirth were also ways the radium girls suffered.  I remember reading at one point about a tumor that had grown to 45 cm, double checking because 45 cm?!  I could barely imagine it, but I had, alas, read it correctly.

Despite the fact that factory owners deliberately buried or manufactured evidence when suspicions began to mount that the radium paint was toxic, laws were not in the workers’ favor, and the women’s illnesses were dismissed through judgmental (and incorrect) diagnoses such as syphilis, a group of five women led by Grace Fryer in New Jersey were able to bring a lawsuit that proved the first crack in the dam to bringing the truth to light.  A lawsuit by the Illinois women, led by Catherine Wolfe Donohue (fired after many years of service because she was beginning to limp and the company perceived this as potentially frightening to the other women who were starting to worry about radium poisoning) and attorney Leonard Grossman finally prevailed in 1939 after years of fighting all the way up to the US Supreme Court.  These cases helped form the basis for occupational protection laws.  The suffering of the radium girls was enormous, the corporate malfeasance immense, and I was very struck by how hard these courageous women fought to make sure others would not face their fate.

Both of these were excellent, though I probably wouldn’t read them back to back again.

The Odyssey

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Last year, Arthur and I left our long-time church denomination after the worldwide conference voted to make a decision we simply could not abide by.  After we took a couple months off entirely and spent Sundays making waffles, reading, and just being generally lazy in the best possible way, we knew we wanted to work on finding a new church more in line with our values.  Eventually, we landed and started putting down roots.  There’s plenty that churches and denominations have generally in common, and while this is a new tradition to us in many ways, it’s also very familiar.  There are still occasional moments, though.

Listening to the organ play the intro to one of the communion hymns yesterday, both Arthur and I recognized it immediately.  It’s a particular favorite of mine, to the extent that it’s the music I walked down the aisle to when we got married, but as I looked down at the words, I realized they were definitely not the old, familiar ones I know by heart.  The closing hymn was the reverse: I knew all the words, but they were not set to the music I know.  Both of us laughed afterwards – so close, and yet so far!

Such it is right now in this period of transition generally.

I think one of things that is alternately frustrating and comforting is that after everything (waves hand generally at the last seven or eight years) the building blocks of who I am are still the same.  I’m still introverted, stubborn, bookish, prone to wrath, able to laugh most days at the absurdity of life.  The bedrock is there.  The circumstances have changed fairly vastly, the worldview expanded, perspective changed, but I’m still, well, me.  Also, in some big ways, not.  The familiar sitting in such close company with all the new is a little disconcerting.

Perhaps one of the things I expected after the everything was a personality transformation into something entirely different.  Something that overcame my weaknesses.  Something that transfigured my strengths.  Something motivational.  Something fabulous.  And, perhaps, an ending, a there, a destination.

Instead, as one of the characters says to the protagonist in the novel (This Tender Land  by William Kent Krueger) I’ve been reading and re-reading, “You believe you’ve been looking for home, Odie.  This is where your belief has brought you.  That doesn’t mean it’s the end of your journey.”

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

Good Gracious, It’s 2020

After a decidedly mixed-bag Christmas (a post for another day), I’m happy to say that I’ve gotten the lift in spirits I sometimes get in January.  Some of that probably has to do with the daylight getting slightly longer, but this time, the somewhat arbitrary “life reboot” of New Year’s Day fits well with my needing to move into a new phase of life.

  • In the last month or so, I’ve stepped up my gym routine. I started with classes back in July, but also had a foot out the door mentally because of the FET in October.  However, I’ve realized how much fertility treatments, bed rest + various activity restrictions, and c-sections/surgeries have destroyed my core and abdominal muscles.  I’ve spent the last several years with an old back injury flaring up regularly because of my lack of core.  In August, I noticed after doing class for about a month, I was having a bit less pain.  Since the FET fail, I’ve worked on adjustments to my workouts to continue that progress.  While I still don’t have the rock-solid abs and core I’d love to possess, I’m definitely noticing that my back is better yet.  Hopefully that progress will continue!
  • Arthur and I made plans to turn our spare room into a craft/quiet/art/music room for the kids. Crib will become a desk and changing table a set of shelves to store art supplies.  It’s nice to figure out a way to re-purpose these items in a way that fits our lives now instead of having them sitting in the room, a silent ache every time I walked past.  E graduated from physical therapy (hopefully for the final time).  Plan is to step up preschool to three days per week once the school has an opening to prepare E for kindergarten in the fall.  Both girls are taking low-stress/strictly for fun gymnastics lessons for the next couple months.
  • I finally spackled the place on the kitchen ceiling that had an ugly water spot. I resealed the upstairs tub over a year ago, suspecting this was the problem, and since I did, no more dampness to that area.  Definitely time to repaint and make it look nice!  I also broke down and sprang for good re-chargeable batteries to use in the flame-less candles in the living room.  Put them on a timer so that they come on around 4 pm daily and it’s rather amazing how much that simple change makes me smile every time they light.
  • For Arthur’s Christmas present, I got him a short-term subscription to a box that sends ingredients + recipes from some of the top bartenders working currently for custom cocktails. It makes a good “stay in” sort of date night, allows us to try some different things without committing to large/expensive bottles of ingredients that might only get used once, and is just good fun.  We made “Pommes Bandes” last night (pineapple juice, lime juice, allspice cider syrup, Angostura bitters, and rum on the rocks with a garnish of candied ginger).  Definitely not something I would have made for myself normally (or picked off a menu at a bar/restaurant) but absolutely delicious.
  • Journeys and quests (hmmm) have been the theme of the last couple of books I picked up. Finished William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land, a re-telling of “The Odyssey” set in Depression-era Minnesota and absolutely loved it.  I also read the four books of “The Raven Cycle” by Maggie Stiefvater (credit to Jess) and enjoyed those as well.  As a little bit of a departure, I was able to pick up Bitten By Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the 19th Century Home by Lucinda Hawksley from the library (another Jess pick) – totally fascinating.  As someone whose favorite color happens to be rich emerald to forest greens, I am pretty sure that if I’d lived in the centuries where arsenic dyes were in widespread use (apparently not just in wallpaper, but in clothing/textile dyes as well), well…I don’t know that I’d have much expectation for longevity.

 

  • Pommes BandesPommes Bandes and a good book – perfect way to spend an evening!

Happy New Year, all!

Clear

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I went for my saline infusion sonogram (SIS) today.  Walking into the building, I could feel my anxiety almost immediately ratchet up.  I mean, I think my RE’s great, the staff at the office has always been fantastic, but it’s the site of more than a few Really Bad Days so my body/mind seems to have a fairly automatic response to walking through the doors.

I checked in, waited, and was ushered through to the ultrasound room.  Changed.  Dr. E came in and, seeing my reader, asked what I was reading.  “Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owen’s book Medical Bondage, about James Marion Sims, the origins of American gynecology, and the way the use of Black enslaved women and Irish immigrant women as test subjects has influenced pervasive myths about pain tolerance and such that are still coming up today,” I responded*.

Never let it be said that I am not honest (and exceptionally bad at making small talk).

Dr. E thankfully engaged the topic and so that’s a good bit of what we talked about while I had my SIS.

As far as results, things look fine.  My ovaries are mildly polycystic (the usual) and my uterus is clear.  Now I get to wait for September.

*It’s an excellent book so far – if a hard read – that absolutely deserves a serious discussion of its own.  I read about it on NPR’s Code Switch Book Club and picked it up because anything that talks about medical biases regarding race and sex, especially ones that effect perception of pain and treatment, is an extremely relevant read professionally and personally.  

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays – if you want to read more, head on over to Stirrup Queens.  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

The Space

If you have ever spent time in a hospital, you will detect a rhythm.  Under all the bustling of the doctors, the nurses, the respiratory therapists, the entire infrastructure of acronyms that keep the thing running, there is a quality of silence, stopped time as people wait.  Even in the direst moments when everything is moving at full speed, there are pauses – waiting for lab results, specialists, OR rooms to become available, 30 seconds here, a breath there.

I didn’t really understand that rhythm until I became a patient myself, an object of all the bustling as opposed to performing it.  Sitting in the space, waiting, is hard, especially when you know that the result, the consult, the surgery, could change everything.  I often filled the spaces with books and blog posts and articles.  It’s strange how book or words can become a sort of friend in those places, buoying my spirits or just holding the space with me and affirming the mixed emotions in those moments.

Waiting was what I was doing in spring of 2014 after an unexpected result from my FET.  Pregnant but with far too many worrisome signs for confidence, Arthur and I had to decide whether or not to go ahead with a long-planned trip to attend a writer’s festival at our alma mater.  Several authors I admired were on the schedule to speak, we’d shelled out the money for tickets, hotel, and time off.  My RE gave his blessing to go ahead since we’d only be a few hours away and I knew where to go if the symptoms became more concerning.  So we went, hoping for a distraction from the seemingly interminable wait.

It was definitely the right decision, as hard as it was to make at the time.  I listened to lectures by James McBride, Ann Lamott, and so many others.  I went to the English department reception where I smiled, listened, reconnected with people, and shared stories.  All while simultaneously gritting my teeth as I’d feel the blood seeping out and the panic rising, then be blessedly inspired and challenged by new words, new books to read.

That’s how I wound up in a session with an author named Rachel Held Evans, who wrote a blog (and books) on faith, Christianity, and wrestling with (and eventually leaving) evangelicalism – a process both Arthur and I were going through, though in different stages -as well as a heartfelt and surprisingly funny second book on the meaning of “biblical” womanhood.  Arthur and I had read the book and had some good discussions.  After the session, there was a meet and greet and I told her how much I had enjoyed the book and admired her openness writing about faith, life, and menstruation.  I came closer than I want to admit to bursting into tears and confessing that I was really excited to be here but also probably going through a miscarriage and that I was really grateful for some of her writing, that the presence of her and these other authors had made this waiting just a little better.  Thankfully, my sense of manners and decorum kicked in to save me from serious awkwardness and oversharing, but I also suspect she would have been very kind.  The moment ended, we moved on.

One of her books kept me company a year or so later in the NICU as I waited beside my daughter’s incubator.  Arthur and I read it aloud as we put our tiny baby on our chests, sleep deprived, and needing healing words.  Her words kept me company in the empty space when my brother died.  Her words again encouraged us when we walked away recently from the denomination that married us and baptized both our children and were there for us during infertility and the NICU after a decision made at the denominational level to further exclude our LGBTQIA+ brothers, sisters, and non-binary in faith that Arthur and I found cruel and wrong.

Rachel Held Evans died on Saturday, May 4 after a sudden illness that led to complications at the age of 37.  It is for the people who actually knew her in her real life to mourn her in that intimate, deep way that comes with relationship and they are the ones that are truly bereft in this moment.  My heart aches for them as they move forward without her daily presence and grieve her great loss.

As simply a reader of her books and not someone who knew her personally, I’m just grateful for her words and quite sad that the lovely and luminous person behind them is gone from this world.  Those words held my hands and abided with me in some awful spaces.  They are and were a source of presence and balm.

While the many articles and obituaries have quoted Rachel’s final blog post on Ash Wednesday that is unexpectedly apt and poignant in the wake of her passing, the words from her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again are ones I remember now and as a fellow reader they resonate deeply: “I know I can’t read my way out of this dilemma, but that won’t keep me from trying.”

#BecauseofRHE