Dearest Genevra,

Real Conversation between an unnamed friend and myself:

Her: What did you do today?

Me: I worked on a letter to my sister.

Her, in a confused tone : Can’t you all just email?

Me: Uh, no. That’s not the same.

Doh! Of course we could email, but that is irrelevant here. My sister and I write letters to one another. That is what we do.  In  intimate communication the object is not always the shortest line between two points. The process of choosing and forming strings of words into thoughts and then putting those on paper is an intellectual as well as a tactile pleasure. In today’s world, receiving a hand written letter is as rare as seeing a horse and carriage driving down one’s street. We like to do our part to keep this all but forgotten art alive.

For my sister and me, if I may be so bold, one function of our letter writing practice  is to try to recreate being together. Our physical time together is a sort of stream of consciousness. We may be in her kitchen washing dishes, and one of us will say, ” And about that food coop,” and the other will know what she means though we haven’t actually spoken about the coop since yesterday. Later, we can be in the same room reading, and one of us will look up and say,”Huh. Listen to this. These people went to tea  and ate beans on toast!” The other will nod, and return to her own reading without missing a beat.

I know you’re marveling at our heady, rich, vibrant repartee. Well, words can’t convey everything. Suffice it to say that when we are together we are attuned, all of a piece. And when I receive a letter from my sister it too is all of a piece. It is a running narrative of however many days it may take her to write the letter. We intersperse our daily routines with reviews of what we are reading, what our families are doing and with our interior lives.

For several years we wrote our letters as though we were living in the times of whatever literary characters we were exploring. This could mean we would start a letter with:

Dearest Genevra ( We used names more appropriate to the fiction we were reading)

I take pen in hand, fervently begging your forgiveness for the fearful delay in responding to your last missive. I daresay I fairly tremble to recount, though upon my honor I must, as required by my obligations as  a God fearing woman, the travails we have endured  here at Pilgrimage House, brought upon us by who knows what inhuman scourge. Even now as I write my dear Genevra, grey winds cause the fallen leaves to dance in what appears to be an evil announcement that here, within these walls, lies the plague known as streptococcus.

Or, if reading Barbara  Pym, one of our favorites:

Dear Sister,

I hope this finds you in good health. Today was a day like most others. I lit the gas ring this morning to brew some tea  before leaving for the office. As I nibbled on my burnt toast, I noticed, too late, that I had a ladder in my stockings. Lacking bus fare I walked all the blocks to work, but as I had my umbrella scarcely got too wet. One of my office mates, Hiram,  was under the weather and blew his nose all morning into a large white handkerchief. I believe his mother launders them for him. At the lunch hour I stopped at a nearby cafeteria for a bowl of tomato soup before dropping a few letters in the post. After work I dropped in St Augustus of the Fields for evensong; there were only five of us present including the vicar.

And so on. When events render us unable to be quite so playful, we just launch into  the fascinating stuff of our lives. For my part, I just get out paper and begin to write whatever is in my mind. Sometimes I add a little illustration, maybe  a stick figure of myself getting myself into some sort of jam such as dumping a plate of food on a stranger at a restaurant.Once I begin to write I go on and on until I have said everything I know: where I’ve been, what I’ve cooked, what I’ve read, where I’m going. And she’s going to love every single word!

Neither of us uses fancy stationery.  I prefer a legal pad because  my writing is large. Ellen uses paper recycled from her husband’s job at a hospital so the backs of her pages are often printed with diagrams of a human body. But we work around that. Since we write letters we don’t talk much on the phone; we can’t give away what we may have already written. If I see something she posts on facebook, that’s fine, but it doesn’t count because it was not personally directed to me.

We wait weeks for our letters, sometimes patiently, some times not. We usually let one another know that “the eagle has flown” so we know to be on the lookout for a thick, fat letter. Oh, and the sublime pleasure of opening that envelope, of running my hands over the pages of her distinctive  scrawl handwriting I would know anywhere! Usually her letters are written in several colors of ink, according to what she had handy to use while waiting for her daughter at volleyball practice, or before her graduate class met. We number our pages, which are never fewer than twenty.

At the end I feel I have made the rounds of her life with her, which I suppose is the next best thing to being there. For a day or two after I receive her letter I ruminate over whatever subjects she has broached, so that I can respond to them thoughtfully. Then the next chance I get I find a legal pad or notebook paper and begin writing back; I know she’ll be expecting my reply. I guess I had best get started right now; it’s my turn!

She Who Restores Me To Myself

Magpies, in their love of shininess, have an especial need to experience scintillating moments with glittery people. By glittery I do not mean shallow, brittle, self absorbed, or vain. I am talking about an honest  shine that comes from the inside all the way out, an  unconditional shine that radiates warmth over others, a brightly colored shine that pulsates with willingness to pursue novel endeavors. I am of course describing my sister Ellen.

I promised in my last post to write about our latest adventures. But first a little background. Last summer I wrote  a post about my sister in which I referred to her as L.G., or Little General. Ellen did not appreciate that appellation, so I have withdrawn that name from our lexicon. Last week, in a blaze of dervish like activity prior to boarding a plane, I referred to my sister as a hurricane, knowing that should she read the post I would be in big trouble, my kind intentions notwithstanding.

I am  now on record to say that Ellen gets things done, but she is NOT a general. She is a force of nature, but she is NOT a hurricane. What then, can I call her?  She is a person of great intellect, wit, and charm. Her droll humor and clever imagination cannot be matched. Her no nonsense work ethic and organizational skills are an inspiration to others.   Her zest for life is unparalleled, her enjoyment of it a sight to behold. Her authenticity is a beacon to my soul. AND she loves me!

I had not seen my sister since December 2012, when I spent one night with her en route to a friend’s cabin. Little did we know that six long months would pass before we could see one another again. Somehow, with our various travel and work schedules along with  family commitments, the weeks elapsed with no firm visiting plans.

We don’t talk on the phone much. We write letters by hand, on paper, to one another, and have for years. But this past semester many weeks separated our letters. I was beginning to feel like an American colonist awaiting word from the continent.  Had my letter been lost at sea, dashed on a rocky promontory after a shipwreck? Would I hear that she and her family had perished in a smallpox epidemic? Finally my impatience got the better of me. I left her the following cryptic voice mail,”The jig is up!”

That, ladies and gentlemen, got a response, and at last we were able to plan for her to come see me in my town. She flew in on a Friday night just as my husband was flying out on a business trip, making the timing just right for an All Girls’ Extravaganza. I picked up the  Hurric. picked her up at the airport and took her straight to my new midtown condo to spend the night.  She admired the condo, and we both exclaimed over the sweet note my husband had left for us.DSC_0744  Then she unpacked a few of her things.  As I watched her familiar movements and listened to her long accustomed  voice, I had this exact thought: I am restored to myself.

Our plan for the week was to have no plan. That way our plans couldn’t possibly go wrong. That evening, we wanted to eat dinner someplace where we could hear ourselves talk. I recommended a place where we chose a secluded table. No sooner had we sat down  than a large group of ladies, some under the influence of more than two martinis with more in the offing, began screaming raucously, in a way that truly rattles the eardrums.IMG_2071

What do you suppose Ellen did? She approached those ladies, put her arm around one, leaned in and had a little ole talk with them. And they lowered the volume! When we left the restaurant a waitress followed us out to thank her for helping with  the situation!!! How do you describe someone like this?

I told you she's a force of nature!

I told you she’s a force of nature!

The next day Ellen accompanied me to a Knit In Public Day at the zoo. She joined right in with these knitters, sharing knitting anecdotes from her own experiences.. And yes, she had brought her own knitting, self sufficient as always.  She patiently allowed me to show her off to these folks who may never see her again,with nary a complaint  about the heat or crowds. What would you call someone like that?DSC_0711

After knitting we stopped in a consignment store  to look for midcentury modern furniture pieces for my largely unfurnished condo. She said she did not know what midcentury modern was, but she found  me two tables, and rearranged my car so that they would both fit.IMG_2060 But that is not all! She went all the way back down to the condo with me and helped me schlep them up there in grocery carts! Impressive, right?

And wait! There's more! She moves furniture!

And wait! There’s more! She moves furniture!

On Sunday Ellen gamely accompanied me to the Book Club Brunch where she knew barely a soul.  I had actually not read the book to be discussed but by chance she had and was able to make salient comments while I nodded sagely. Though we were at a lovely function in a lovely home, Ellen murmured not  when I announced we must be moving on to the theater to see Death Trap. This allowed me to use my last two remaining season tickets and  also take advantage of the special that day for extending my subscription. All because of Ellen.

On Sunday night we dropped in to Tug’s at Mud Island to be waited upon by my son. While enjoying our meal there we proofread a paper my son was  writing for a summer school class. I am fairly sure we were the only two customers there discussing poetry. After dinner we took a leisurely stroll by the banks of the Mississippi River, remarking on the environs and how many pieces of driftwood resembled dinosaurs.DSC_0726 Thus ended another cultural evening.

After a discussion of poetry over dinner.

After a discussion of poetry over dinner.

DSC_0741Ellen did not flinch the next evening when it was time for Iyengar Yoga. Her graduate school schedule had  prevented her from going to her own class all winter, but she knew enough to know not to push herself. She has “subbed” in my class before, so many members were of course glad to see her. After yoga we spent some quality time outside on my pergola ( which her husband was instrumental in building)  before eating a lovely dinner of grilled vegetables and chicken. Prepared by Ellen.

Post yoga quality time.

Post yoga quality time.

Our chef having some well deserved relaxation.

Our chef having some well deserved relaxation.

Tuesday was my hair day but we made it Ellen’s hair day too. I told her I liked her hair better red than blonde highlighted, so she obligingly had it redone. I watched to see how the stylist blew it dry so I could show her later. We were too hungry to take pictures, so just believe me that we were two groovy red haired old ladies when we left that shop.

And Wednesday. By Wednesday I had to face a deadline – Mary Hannah’s portrait. For months I had been working on the portrait my niece  had asked me to paint. I had decided that I would have it finished as best I could by the time Ellen departed on Thursday so she could deliver it for me.  This meant that after helping me with some yardwork early in the day, Ellen would be stuck watching me paint.DSC_0751 Ellen had, however, bought some teeny tiny canvases, and tried her hand at them while I labored repeatedly  to get M. H.’s skin color to a reasonable tone. Or tint. Or something. Eventually, though her skin looked like combinations of calamine lotion and badly applied makeup, I could do no more. Ellen was suitably soothing and optimistic that the portrait would pass muster with her daughter.DSC_0758

One of Ellen's tiny canvases.

One of Ellen’s tiny canvases.

That night we again spent the night at the condo in order to be closer to the airport in the morning. We wanted to have a nice evening so I made us a reservation a place close by where I did not think there would be gaggles  of loud ladies. Ellen acquiesced when I suggested she change out of those crummy shorts, and together we walked in the blazing heat to the restaurant.  She changed into a skirt of mine that was too long, while  I was wearing a skirt I considered a little dowdy. As we walked I saw how easy it could be for the two of us to become peculiar old ladies together, going to the Early Bird Specials and matinees, careful to be home by dark.

It was a bittersweet evening. As I doodled on my side of the tablecloth, Ellen was compiling  a list of all we had done.

Now with red hair.

Now with red hair.

The list was long, but not nearly long enough. Oh, the things we would do if we had more time! Oh, how empty indeed would even the mundane events be without her! We decided once again that there was no help for it but to retire together in the same place, on the same property if possible. We’ll tell our husbands it’s the only way.IMG_2084

Ellen has gone home now. The portrait is delivered. I am trying to recalibrate myself after almost a week with this adorable creature who knows my thoughts, who finishes my sentences, who always finds something to celebrate. Now that you have read my post I must ask: what you would call my sister? How can she even be described? If you can think of anything – not L.G. or Hurricane of course- I’d be glad to know. For now, I’m just going to call her She Who Restores Me To Myself.DSC_0736

How Did It Go?

Whoa! I haven’t partied like THAT in a long time! It’s nice to know I could fit so many  people in my house. Even now I pinch myself that they all found their way here.  But really, how did it go? You’ll have to tell me because when something is at my house I can never tell. I’m too busy with my hostess duties.

I’ll tell you what I DID notice.  The doorbell kept ringing and ringing and ringing!  I met so many people I can’t remember all their names, but they were all book lovers. And such a creative vibe! It doesn’t even seem real that I got to entertain so many readers, bloggers, writers, and artists.

Here's what got the party started!

Here’s what got the party started!

Did you see that knot of people at the top of the stairs? The hipsters  drinking out of the whiskey glasses? They met each other after they got here and sat up there for hours discussing everything from literary theory to the best discount travel sites.

They helped themselves to the glasses. Sorry everyone else had to use Solo cups!

They helped themselves to the glasses. Sorry everyone else had to use Solo cups!

And then there was the group that stayed over by the fireplace; I guess they were lucky, in that crush of people to have a place to sit down on the hearth. I overheard a lot there about literary fiction.  People were good natured about the crowd, though, and perched wherever they could.

In the sunroom there was lots of laughter, apparently connected to a disagreement over the best children’s literature. Everyone was advocating for their favorite childhood book characters. I merely smiled as I looked in, knowing quite well I had “Bread And Jam For Frances” upstairs  in a bedroom, literally above their heads.

People formed  groups organically, in a kind of human Dewey Decimal system. I met grandmothers, sci fi fans, hikers, librarians, poets, cooks, and doctoral students. Young mothers seemed clustered together, and the retirees stayed put on the upholstered chairs. People kept offering to help me but I really just wanted them to meet each other and have fun.

Mingling among the groups. I had little time to spend with each person. I did admit to someone that I don’t really know how to use twitter,and that the weekend I was trying to write my first blog post, I nearly burst into tears trying to crop the magpie picture on the header. I had hoped to get each person to just recommend to me ONE book, and I was going to keep them in a list  on my phone so I wouldn’t lose it. But I couldn’t even keep up with my red solo cup of wine, much less my phone. I guess that will have to be a future blog post.

I was glad for people to peruse my bookshelves. It would be the first thing I'd do in THEIR homes!

I was glad for people to peruse my bookshelves. It would be the first thing I’d do in THEIR homes!

I would say there were one hundred people in the back yard. Some seemed to recognize flowers I had photographed for the blog. Others were out there to smoke or to get some fresh air. The few times I checked out there, I got some good tips on growing tomatoes.

I don’t regret catering in the barbecue. That’s the easiest way I know to feed 500 people on short notice. Certainly my guests  had no great cuisine expectations, but there was no way I was entertaining without serving food. There is no banana pudding left, by the way.

I guess my social skills WERE needed for my impromptu party!

I guess my social skills WERE needed for my impromptu party!

Thanks to onecreativescientist, the ice chests were stocked with beer, soft drinks and ice. My few wine bottles were supplemented with donations from my gracious guests. Krugthethinker and thewaiting were absolute angels; they were two extra sets of hands to  greet guests, keep drinks flowing, and direct people to the facilities.

I'm thinking of some little hostess aprons for krugthethinker and thewaiting for all their help.

I’m thinking of some little hostess aprons for krugthethinker and thewaiting for all their help.

I won’t even try to count the languages and nationalities represented. But wasn’t it cool how many made friends, exchanged emails and made plans to visit one another in India, Wales, Chile, England? And to read one another’s work?

As soon as I get this place cleaned up, I’m going to sit down and write some thank you notes.

A lady always has stationery at the ready.

A lady always has stationery at the ready.

DSC_0719Because I really am thankful that so many people stopped by to read my post. It WAS like a party for 500 people, one I would love to experience over and over again. In fact, I would love to know more about those who stopped by, and to make a new friend, or 499 friends. Welcoming all of you into my life, however briefly, is the best Fresh Press of all!

Magnificent Obsession

It was Friday. I’d been looking forward to it, dreaming of it, actually, for days. I knew what I was going  to do.  No need to announce my intentions to others. I had an itch of a kind that must be scratched.

Let’s just say I was looking for  a companion with certain attributes. I wanted a solid, steadfast presence with some nurturing aspects. I tended to favor the company of a more mature companion, but I wouldn’t discriminate based on age.  Nor would I turn down an adventurous or mysterious spirit. In my mind’s eye I had seen myself, breathless and enthralled, hanging on to every word and moment with my future friend, marveling  at his (or her) genius. And ah, our imagined parting! What sorrow! I wanted to weep in advance, for as surely as I would cleave to the charms of my companion, so I would also seek to avoid our inevitable parting.

This insatiable need I am describing is not new. I don’t mean to be such a user, but if I am anywhere close to my type of friend  I can’t pay attention to anything else. In the end I will take everything the friend has to offer, turn away from it and seek a replacement. Friday was no exception. I was on the prowl.

But  I  couldn’t go just yet. I had to prepare. I showered, dressed, and fortified myself with a light lunch. I would need my wits about me for my journey.  I didn’t bring my camera; I didn’t know if this kind of intimacy was something best recorded on film. You know, the capturing of souls and all that.

In due time, I left the house. My heart was eager, and urged me to travel swiftly toward my rendezvous.  I reminded myself I need not be desperate, that the right companion, or companions, would await me. This was not a time to dwell on imaginary scarcities. There will be an ample supply, I murmured to myself to slow my heart’s acceleration.

When I arrived, I was welcomed into a pleasant chamber to view my prospects. Others  were there, no doubt to choose according to their desired types, but I barely registered them as I reconnoitered the room. Perhaps to prevent frenzied behaviors on the part of the lookers, our hosts had piped in some smooth jazz  recordings which sent an unspoken message,”This is a classy type of  meat market.”

Music helped to manage our obsessive tendencies.

Music helped to manage our obsessive tendencies.

But a meat market it was! Our hosts had scoured far and wide to provide us with a startling array of companions- new, old. short, substantial, local. practical, exotic. cultured, unrefined, alluring, erudite, nondescript. Helpers circulated among the lookers, encouraging them in their choices. No one would have to leave empty handed.

These autographed options stood on a bookcase by themselves.

These autographed options stood on a bookcase by themselves.

IMG_1924

You can’t judge them by their covers.

I saw many familiar friends from the past, ones whose beauty and truth I would never forget. I ran my hands over them, willing the fond memories of our times together. I was glad they were available for others. I browsed. I  took my time, moving aside patiently for others, as they in turn did for me.  The atmosphere was so civilized that I risked taking a few  discreet pictures with my phone.IMG_1930

IMG_1932

So I can soothe my savage beast at home.

II

Hello, handsome!

Hello, handsome!

More eye candy.

More eye candy.

I selected carefully, opting in the end for an eclectic  mix of potential friends, returning to the fold those which did not strike my fancy, just as I hoped others would do for me.  I had no idea how long I had been in there, oblivious to hunger, thirst, or any other human need. A glance around the area showed I was not the only one in an endorphin filled haze. Gladly I gave the nominal fee to take my choices home for further inspection.

To each his own.

To each his own.

This kind lady and other volunteers helped me replenish my supplies for the nonce.

This kind lady and other volunteers helped me replenish my supplies for the nonce.

It has been two days. and we are settling in together nicely. I need not hurry to choose a favorite; each one  will share its  treasures with me at my pleasure, as many times as I want. There will be other selections in the future, but these are fine for today. My itch has subsided for the time being, happy with the anticipation of the thrills to come. How about you? Met any fascinating new friends lately?

On The Correct Path With Jane Eyre

I’m convinced that all humans have internal lists of “what is supposed to happen” in their lives. In my life, it is “supposed to ” snow every winter. I’m talking about  grey skies  bursting with  frozen precipitation, plump snowflakes drifting past my windows and  snowdrifts disguising lawn chairs and toy wagons. I mean a blanket of snow that sends us  rifling through drawers  for the “snow clothes” necessary to frolic outside.   For the second year in a row we have gotten nothing except for the lightest dusting of snow, which does not even qualify one to rush to the store for blizzard supplies such as hot chocolate, chocolate bars, and marshmallows.

If you, reader, do not hail from the South, I had better tell you that down here even ONE INCH of snow will paralyze the city. Stores and offices close, and yes, there is  an air of hysteria, pre-snow, at Kroger’s, where hordes of shoppers fill their carts with the above mentioned necessities plus bread, milk and instant fire logs. We are giddy  because we know we will not have to go to work or school. It is what I call an excused absence from  adult life. What a blissful moment indeed it is to announce,” I can’t go to work today. I may as well play in the snow!”

Upon my return from Istanbul, which was also snow-free, I had to admit to myself that this bleak, lackluster winter was all we were to have this year.  My chances for snow had evaporated faster than a snowball on a  hissing radiator. I would not be donning my snow boots to crunch through a silent pristine wonderland, but huddling, covered by layers of sweater,  by a space heater instead. For a time I indulged myself with self pity. I was cold. The days were dark. “What was one to do?” I wondered morosely.

Of course there was but one practical solution: to embrace the ugliness of the winter by pretending to be Jane Eyre!  Nerdy you say? Goofy? I would say it is no more goofy and nerdy than having imaginary conversations with people I don’t know, which is what I  am doing right now.books

The fact that I was at that time  listening to Jane Eyre , thanks  to the  marvelous  podcast CraftLit,  probably contributed to my decision. On an unpromising Saturday morning I set out  with my Ipod, walking at Shelby Farms Patriot Lake. I decided I would use my camera to catalogue the sights, both colorful and bland, which caught my eye.DSC_0342 As the wind whipped across the lake, I wrapped my scarf more tightly  around myself  while contemplating Jane’s dismal childhood of chilblains and privation, and her eventual posting at Thornfield. The chapters that day concerned Mr. Rochester’s  false pursuit of Blanche Ingram, the cruel ingenue, in full view of poor besotted Jane.

Jane Eyre was alone in the world.

Jane Eyre was alone in the world.

As I rounded the path for another lap, I began to enumerate ways in which I resembled Jane Eyre. One, I was on foot in an ugly setting, just like lowly Jane. Though not a  governess,  I do work to keep children safe and healthy. I thought Jane was a good judge of character when she saw through both Miss Ingram and Mr. Rochester. I hoped that I too had intuition about other people. Jane didn’t try to put on airs, which I thought was a plus. I too eschew wearing makeup and dressing in uncomfortable clothes. Mr. Rochester could confuse and annoy Jane to no end, just as my husband can confuse and annoy me!

Passing  a lone bench by the lake, I imagined myself  as Jane in a bonnet and long skirt, walking for a while before she returned home to sit by the fire.DSC_0355 I decided that the character trait I most admired about Jane was her deep knowledge of her self. She knew her values and  refused to compromise them. Even in the constricted social environment for women at the time, she struggled never to be beholden to anyone. Her ability to listen to her own inner voice helped her not to be swayed by the opinions of others.DSC_0352

This was good food for thought. How was I doing on listening to myself? How was I living out my values? How was I giving back to the world? Each question I asked myself led to another question, and eventually to a few answers. The answers don’t matter as much as the fact that I asked them. My pretend game had put me right on the path of self examination, which  was just  the correct “supposed to” for that day.DSC_0332

How about you? Do you ever admire character traits in fictional characters? Which ones? Do you have those traits or wish you did? I won’t ask you to tell whether you actually pretend to be the characters BECAUSE I ALREADY KNOW YOU DO! But don’t worry. People like Jane Eyre don’t tell tales!