Play It Again

The empty brown book stared at me reproachfully, I thought, as I passed by it several times each day. I pretended not to hear it remind me that I was supposed to be filling the blank pages with sketches… of something, but what could the something be? Ever since I had excitedly unwrapped my sketchbook it had been languishing on the bookcase, light brown, nondescript, practically invisible to all but me.

Several months before, I had sent for the book, eager to participate in The Sketchbook Project. ( I learned about the project from Andra Watkins at The Accidental Cootchie Mama.) If you have not heard of the Sketchbook Project, it  is a crowd sourced library of sketchbooks. You fill in your book, send it in, and it goes on traveling exhibits to museums. If you digitize your book, you will receive an email every time someone checks out your book from the exhibit. At least that is how I understand the process.

So now all I had to do was fill in the book. One day my grandmotherly thoughts mixed in with my thoughts of needing to complete the book. And Eureka! I had it! I would make the book be about what we old people used to play when we were little.

As a perpetual child, parent, grandparent, and play therapist, the idea of a book about playing  resonated with me. Play is the work of children, but adults need to play as well. Documenting my play history would be a way to preserve memories for my grandchildren but would also be fun for me right now.

Psst. Hey.  I’m Mindfulmagpie’s inner sixth grader. While Mindful is at the post office mailing in our sketchbook, I’m going to surprise her and complete her post. I should be writing the post anyway because I’m the one who completed the sketchbook!  I know lots of sketchbooks are probably done by adult artists but that’s OK. I may be an adult artist one day. Here’s the cover!
sketchbook (100 of 121)

The cover was brown card stock. I covered it with construction paper and photos, and topped it off with two coats of Mod Podge. sketchbook (102 of 121) I didn’t mind letting Mindful dedicate the book to her grandchildren. We’re all children anyway. Mindful and I had a really good time remembering what all we used to play when we were very young.

sketchbook (74 of 121) My first playmate was my older brother. He’s in the eighth grade now so we don’t have much to do with each other.sketchbook (106 of 121) sketchbook (77 of 121)  I don’t remember the Hansel and Gretel episode. But I do remember the time we played ‘saloon” with mugs and soapy water while my mother was taking a nap. As we slid each mug down the countertop just the way they did in the Westerns, our mugs hit the broken tile floor with a resounding crash. Our Mother was not amused.sketchbook (79 of 121)

Next I began to play with the children in the neighborhood. Someone was always outside playing.
sketchbook (80 of 121)sketchbook (81 of 121) We had good times displaying our art at Mammaw’s house.sketchbook (110 of 121) Oops! I made a mistake on this page, making  a colored test pattern on a black and white TV. Maybe I thought in color. Now, in sixth grade, we do have a color TV. And central air, finally.sketchbook (112 of 121) Our mothers and our maids always made us go outside. In fact they still do. sketchbook (113 of 121) I’ve always loved to be in the water. When I grow up I’m going to have my own swimming pool so I can swim whenever I want!sketchbook (114 of 121) Most years we have some lemonade stands and carnivals to earn money. But now that I’m in the sixth grade I’m going to try to start baby sitting. That’s much more sophisticated.sketchbook (94 of 121) I was MUCH younger when we did this play!sketchbook (95 of 121)

In the school year we had the whole afternoon to play until our Mothers called us for dinner. All we had after school was Girl Scouts. Our homework never seemed to take long. This year  I mostly do mine on the school bus. Sometimes we meet right after school for Miss America. My answers to the contest questions are pretty good, but I get marked down on poise a lot.sketchbook (117 of 121) I ended the book here. Magpie tells me I’ll soon not be playing any of this any more, that we girls will all be passing notes in class and talking about boys and clothes. But what I want most right now is to not have to wear glasses and to be able to get braces like the older girls on the school bus. Braces look cool and you get excused from school a lot. 

But since I’m not going to be playing this stuff much longer just remember this book is TOP   SECRET!! If I find out any of you told about Chambermaids or Miss America you are DEAD MEAT!! I’ll tell EVERYBODY on the school bus that you are a BIG LIAR!!!!

What?? Who wrote all this on my blog post?

I did. You were having too much trouble writing it.  Since I did something for you you should tell me some things about the future. Am I going to quit wearing glasses? Am I? Am I going to get braces? Am I? Am I?

That’s true. I was having trouble writing the post. And fair enough, you helped me so  I should tell you some things. Sorry honey, but you’re going to keep wearing glasses FOREVER. The braces are also a no.

But I have a SPACE between my teeth!

You’ll be surprised how little you’re going to be bothered by that space. But I do have some good news. The swimming pool is a YES!

Yippee! I’m going to tell all my friends this afternoon at “Miss America”! Can I go now?

The Book I Most Want To Read

As previously reported, I am in the process of fleshing out and editing my NaNoWriMo novel. I don’t have a consistent  schedule for when to actually sit down and work, but I think often of the miniature world I created, of the characters’  struggles and triumphs. Imagine my excitement when a couple of weeks ago L., an author and former editor, agreed to meet with me to discuss our mutual projects.

Moi?  Discussing someone’s writing project? I had a feeling L. did not specialize in fourth grade book reports or progress notes for therapy sessions, the two forms of writing with which I am most familiar. Nonetheless L. arrived at my home armed with two copies of the first chapter of  her current fictional work.  I was armed with only one copy of my first chapter, because I didn’t know any better.

Over coffee cake we shared our respective synopses. I learned that L.’s protagonist is a teenager living in a United States of the future, while L learned that my protagonist is a middle aged woman living in the present in a town which does not exist. Next we read one another’s chapters. I was immediately pulled into the life of L.’s teenaged heroine.  I had opinions on where she was going, and what she would do next. Clearly L. has the talent to write in such a way that the reader quickly develops  empathy for her characters.

The meeting made me feel so…writerly, because L was generous enough to take me seriously despite my lack of education and experience. Somewhere in there we talked about mutual challenges for our work going forward. My dilemma was that I had been advised to begin my book with more action. Should I do as I had been advised or should I do what I thought best?  And how could I think anything to be best when I had never written anything at all?DSC_0323

As we say in the South, bless little  ole Miss L.’s heart!! She absolutely validated my intention to write a book about a woman’s interior life, the world others do not see. Her advice to write the kind of book I would want to read myself was the most grounding advice I could have heard that day. I doubt I was of much help to her, but I gave it my best shot. I hope points are given for effort!

I did make the cake though!

I did make the cake though!

Two days later I arrived at the Monterey Aquarium, where some scenes in my book take place. I wanted to see the place for myself in order to write more realistically about my character’s day there. I was curious; what would have caught my character’s eye or mind at the museum? What, if anything, would stay with her, lingering in her thoughts  long after her day at the museum was over?

DSC_1489

Finally, an uncrowded spot!

I suppose we see what we need to see when we are ready, for though I was wondering what my protagonist would feel, I was quickly making observations of my own.

I was wearing the ones on the right.

See the photo below!

All my observations weren't deep. See how these two fish look just like my new shoes in the shot above?

All my observations weren’t deep. See how these two fish look just like my new shoes in the shot above?

As I made my way through the exhibits, folks were crowded all around the tanks, admiring the fish and taking pictures.DSC_0468

These sea creatures  inhabit  worlds we do not see, worlds that humans have been known to ignore or exploit.  Each species is  motivated by instinct to perform actions  we may may  not understand. Their ways of living and appearances are alien to us.DSC_0443

What are YOU lookin' at?

What are YOU lookin’ at?

In the tanks the creatures grow and change, each ecosystem interacting with and depending on one another.  For them it is business as usual  but the humans  are mesmerized. We cannot stop congregating, staring, watching, and eventually becoming hypnotized by the swirling colors and otherworldly life forms. DSC_0422DSC_1474It is as though we can see into their souls, if they have souls. As we stare we realize we are all interconnected parts of the same whole.DSC_1468

As I tried to sidle up to the tanks, camera at the ready,  I felt a thrill of recognition. Why, this was JUST like reading fiction. A reader opens  a book and finds an entire world, full of people and events that are strange to him.  Though the reader  may not agree with what happens to the characters, he  becomes entangled in their lives just the same.  Hopefully the author has used prose arranged so artfully that the reader, like one of those gathered by the fish tanks, finds himself compelled to read the words over and over, just to hear them or to see the mental pictures evoked one more time.DSC_0411

As we navigate the stories we read, we come face to face with ourselves. How do our inner lives correspond with those of the characters for which we have so much empathy? Would we respond as the characters have? What do their struggles have to do with our own lives?DSC_0454

It has been said that fiction exists for truth telling. Just as an endangered species takes us out of our complacencies, a work of fiction can disrupt our world. Characters can become permanent parts of our lives. While we may never meet Jean Valjean, Porfiry Petrovich or even Harry Potter in our actual lives, they live forever in our hearts. Raise your hand if you have ever pondered on characters and their predicaments long after you have completed your first reading of a favorite book!

What if we had to  live his life?

What if we had to live his life?

I left the aquarium feeling more connected to the unseen worlds of the ocean, and grateful that such quirky but gorgeous creatures are on this earth. I got a sense of what would have caught my heroine’s eye, and how she would have responded to her surroundings. But focusing on these unseen watery worlds gave me even more permission to write authentically about what interests me, namely, this particular middle aged woman in a town which does not exist.DSC_0387

One day in the future I hope to have my heroine’s story ready to share. Her world is compact,  but it is real, just as  the lovely blue tangs and angel fish inhabit a small but tangible space. In the grand scheme of things her efforts in this life may seem minor, but  her spirit touches many. Like the connections found in the world beneath the sea, like all the humans on this earth, she is a small part of that whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. That is exactly the book I want to write, because that is exactly the book I would most want to read.DSC_0416

 

 

 

 

Overheard At The Book Sale

Hey everybody! I’m on my way out to the pool, but before I go, I know you want to hear about the  Friends Of The Library Used Book Sale. Because although everyone does not get to go, everyone SHOULD have the chance to go. Yes, I wrote about this last year. It was a popular post, but I know better than to try to recreate it.

I know you would have loved being there. I arrived at 10:00 A.M., accidentally grouping myself with the crowd waiting to be the first ones in. We streamed in when the doors were unlocked: the young, the old, the limping, the pony tailed, the bearded. Many thought to bring their own bags, for a bagful of books was priced at five dollars. And we early birds each had a game plan.

Mine was to head straight to the record albums. I did find a few, not as many as I had hoped, but I had to move on. Now I was free to drink in the heady air of the shelves. Nonfiction first. I already had a rolling cart, because as the pro that I am, I was not going to be held back by a handbag, despite its potential value as a weapon to procure the only copy of  Backyard Pests or Desserts From Around The World.

I would willingly fight for this Anthony Powell, but I already own it.

I would willingly fight for this Anthony Powell, but I already own it.

I found paperbacks to read in the swimming pool:DSC_0325

And some nonfiction that suited my fancy.

I'm in a World War I phase right now. Also I'm in a World War II phase. Double nerd.

I’m in a World War I phase right now. Also I’m in a World War II phase. Double nerd.

Though we were  a civilized crowd today, emotions ran a broad gamut. Would there be any decent classics left? And how about the selection of banned books? Endorphins and cortisol filled the room like a whiff of Midnight In Paris.

Hey. Scoot over and make room for somebody else.

Hey. Scoot over and make room for somebody else.

Tension was definitely in the air, but if one wanted to be sure, one could do what I did. I eavesdropped. Here is my report of the emotional scene:

Disappointment in the  the paperback fiction: “I been lookin’. But I ain’t found the first romance in here.”

Dang!

Dang!

Effusiveness, obsessiveness and  poor boundaries in the mystery paperbacks: “I’m a neat freak! Everbody wants to know how I keep my house so clean!”

I don't see the lady in question. She had clearly come straight from having her hair done.

I don’t see the lady in question. She had clearly come straight from having her hair done.

More obsessiveness  later from the same woman, apparently worried abut the effects of unauthorized reading on the populace, in the hardbacks: “Yes, but when you get started on one it really ruins your housekeeping, doesn’t it?”

Attitude of entitlement in the children’s section, from a middle aged woman, imperiously, to a volunteer,”Where are the third grade books?”

Affability and non competitiveness, or perhaps a pickup line  in the hardback fiction, from a man to a woman, Him: “I’ve seen quite a few Danielle Steeles in here. Aren’t you looking for those?”

Her: “Yes, I’ve got my list of titles right here.” Displays handwritten list.IMG_2836

Defeat, from the woman with a limp, to her friend in the science fiction, “Just take yer time, Charlene.  I’ve gotta take a load off.”

I feel her pain.

I feel her pain.

Hope, from one woman to her husband, over in the corner ” Let’s pay for what we’ve got and come back at 3:00.”

Determination, in the History section, from a little girl to her Mama, “Please just let me finish this row!” Mother agrees reluctantly. Girl finishes searching the row and grabs a book.

Mother,”Young lady, you have already got a set of Presidential biographies at home. You can’t find what you want so you just want to buy something.”

History girl is the one in pink. Is it so wrong to just want to buy something?

History girl is the one in pink. Is it so wrong to just want to buy something?

Generosity, from a man to his wife in the record department, “Honey, go ahead and get it. It’s got Cher on it!”

And from me, ambition to become one of the helpers at the sale. and not entirely for altruistic reasons. Me, to my husband, as we exited the parking lot, “I know that record volunteer was holding some records back. I saw him.”DSC_0323

The Book Of Life

My book club had its annual holiday brunch this Sunday. After feasting  merrily we got down to the business of choosing the first six  books to read in 2014. We wrote down the titles of books we might potentially read, and one or two people looked up each book and read us a synopsis. I sat among readers of all kinds: serious literary fiction readers, readers who hate romance, readers of “beach books”, and readers who will not even try a book that is more than 300 pages long.

books

Source:aonetwork.com

I listened to the comments of these women after each synopsis had been read. Some books were not chosen because of length. Less complicated  books were postponed until summer when apparently lighter fare is required. One author was turned down flat because his work was judged too inaccessible. None of these opinions disturbed me; after all, we must have some method of choosing what to read.

Another  type of comment, however, did stick with me. It too is one that is probably shared around the world at book clubs:  ‘”Oooh. That sounds boring. Nothing much happens.” “Yeah, let’s don’t read that one.” Because  my tastes in reading are not representative of the reading group to which I belong, I remained silent as I  often I am  in these discussions.

But I had things I wanted to say. Thankfully I can say those things right here in this blog. First I wanted to say that if the blurb of a book does not mention much action, then maybe the actions that take place are interior ones.  Books about characters’ inner lives are the books that I love more than any others on earth. I can think of many authors whose work centers on the meandering of the characters’ minds. Henry James, Richard Ford, John Banville, James Joyce, Ian McEwan are  but a few who come to mind.

Though I enjoy a clever  plot, I am more interested in the movement of the characters from within. How does the character struggle? How does he change? What does he grieve?  What must he let go of, or what will he not let go of despite the consequences? Does he feel his life is worthwhile, and how so? Naturally the characters’ quandaries  bring me to ask the same existential questions of myself, because as humans we share the same basic conditions, whether we are alive in 2013 or 1813.

quote-one-of-the-most-important-and-most-neglected-elements-in-the-beginning-of-the-interior-life-is-the-thomas-merton-347825

izquotes.com

My sister was at the book club because she was in town this weekend. Later that day we discussed the importance of the interior life. We decided that an outwardly uneventful life is not by definition one of quiet desperation. In fact, most of us live lives in which nothing all that dramatic happens. Rather, we experience a series of small events which, while  perhaps not meaningful to others, are the stuff of untold drama for us as individuals, and in the end they make up our lives.

I also did not mention to the book club that I might have been a little sensitive on that day to the plight of the person with the uneventful life. I belong to a facebook group for those who graduated from my high school during the 1970s. The group/page was spearheaded by a woman I knew only to speak to in high school.   She was one of those people I walked past without a second thought. I don’t know who her friends were; in my teenaged hubris I was focused mostly on which boys boys thought I was how hot in whatever ensemble  I wore that day.

But when she invited me to the page I did remember her. I’ll call her Cindy. Cindy posted frequently with news of our classmates’ joys, trials, and tribulations. I gathered from her posts that she was single and worked in a hospital setting. Occasionally she would post something of a spiritual nature or request prayers for classmates with health challenges.  She mentioned that her parents were deceased and that she lived with her brother. I came to expect her regular posts about studying for a test, ( She seemed to also be a student.) having to work late or watching a football game. She was not one of those TMI sharers, just friendly and concerned for her classmates.

Right before Thanksgiving I saw a post from the page co- administrator that she could not believe Cindy was dead. WHAT????? I asked, along with several other classmates. Over the next few days some details emerged. Yes, Cindy was dead. Her brother, who is mentally challenged, found that she had fallen and passed out in the bathroom of the apartment where they  lived.  It is not known which event occurred first, or why, but she died.

Cindy’s brother’s church came to his aid. There were not funds for a burial, so the church had her remains cremated. Cindy’s life ended with no funeral or memorial service and no obituary. Cindy’s classmates are now in the process of finding out whether there is a fund for her brother’s care  to which we might contribute in her name. There has been talk among the classmates of trying to arrange a memorial service for her.

Though I do not expect a book to be written about Cindy’s life, if it were written I would be eager to  read it. What were the hopes and dreams of this woman who buried  both her parents, supported her brother, and died so young?  How did she find meaning in her everyday life? Was her life all that she had once hoped it would be?  What did administering  the facebook page mean to this woman who had so few resources that we could see? Or did she have a wealth of inner awareness and peace which sustained her and helped enrich her short life?

We will never know the answers to these questions.   Maybe Cindy was just a woman who lived and died like the rest of us. I guess nothing much ever happened to her. Or did it? Fiction at its best can only imitate life.

It's the small things that make up a life.

It’s the small things that make up a life.

It’s the Real Thing

Hi Everybody! The Magpie is BACK after spending November, the month of Thanksgiving, typing furiously as well as inaccurately, which I know how to do at the same time, on my NaNoWroMo novel. I seem to have come out the other side with few ill effects except for realizing that I had been washing my hair with conditioner and wearing my bedroom slippers with the cardboard inserts still inside. What will become of my little novel? Thanks so much for asking. At the moment I plan to correct the typos and save it as a PDF so that a few carefully selected persons can read it. After that, I don’t know.

Naturally the NaNoWriMo experience has changed me. I am flooded with gratitude to all the authors out there who have slaved throughout history to create imaginary worlds for me to inhabit. I cannot even begin to count how my life has been enriched from their efforts which have allowed me to   know unforgettable characters, to identify  with their struggles, and to become  a part of their lives. Do not  say their lives aren’t real. YES THEY ARE!  And how I have mourned when a beloved tale has ended, for I was not ready to say goodbye.

I have greedily taken in all these riches provided to me by hard working men and women of vision and perseverance just the way I imagine ancient Romans used to feast at their ….parties, as though there were no tomorrow. That is no problem in itself; I consider daily reading to be a necessity, not a luxury. Read, read, for tomorrow we may die, I believe the saying goes.

But where I find fault with myself is in my not having been able to  see what very hard work it is  for these authors to craft their collections of words and sentences. Previously, after polishing off a book, I would say with a dismissive sniff something like, ” This author has used the word magnificent five times already”, or, “I can see where this plot is going. Is this author trying to insult my prodigious intelligence with this elementary story?”  And here’s the most infamous one of all ,”I could have written this.” NOT!!!!!  Readers, I have  now seen the light. Even a so- so, run of the mill, no brainer story requires serious work!

My second big NaNoWriMo change is a renewed appreciation for those who read what I write. In today’s  WordPress forum, reading a post is even more work than ever because of all the buttons one must push to get to the original post, a procedure which, like a long line at the grocery store, gives one time to decide if he REALLY wants to read this post. I did not formerly take readers for granted; no, I have been thrilled to have anything of mine read. However,  while writing for NaNoWriMo I came to see how important it is for a writer to have some feedback from the audience. I found myself wondering how readers would react to the creative decisions I made. That is why I am so eager, even hungry, for someone to read my little NaNoWriMo and meet my characters. They’re real, you know.

When I finally hit the “validate” button on the NaNoWriMo site this year, I did not know what to do with myself. Suddenly it was December. It began to sink in with me that I am traveling a lot this December and that I actually just had one day to Christmas shop and had no ideas of what to shop for. My poor tortured spirit, so depleted after my monumental authorly marathon, rebelled. It demanded to connect to something more real, more authentic than chasing around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to purchase and give away material items to folks who don’t really need anything. Really, Christmas shopping is no substitute for the thrill of writing.

So of course, I grabbed for a very comforting something real: a book series that I have already read. I am sure you all have your favorite go-to, read-again books. But in the spirit of gratitude I am sharing one of mine. Who knows when you may need to take refuge from the unrealistic expectations and disgusting commercialism that make up the holiday season?

Unknown-2

Source:bookmarcsonline.com

You may be familiar with Louise Penny’s well written Inspector Gamache detective series which takes place mainly in a tiny Canadian village called Three Pines. Why do I love it so? The main draw for me is how the author draws me in and makes me long to jump in my car and drive without stopping the 36 or so hours it would take me to get to this ancient village, where all the inhabitants seem to be sitting by a warm fire, drinking hot chocolate and saying words in a sexy French accent.

Source:louisepenny.com

Source:louisepenny.com

If you were to join me in Three Pines we could stay at the Bed and Breakfast run by an engaging  gay couple, Gabrí and Olivier,  where we would be served gourmet meals while we discussed who could have committed the most recent murder. We might be interviewed by Inspector Gamache, the honorable, perceptive Head of the Sûreté de Quebec, who prizes above all the ability to listen in order to solve a crime. And his ability to quote poetry by heart is a definite plus. That evening we would be invited to the home of one of the local citizens, perhaps that of Myra Landers, the  caftan clad retired psychologist who runs a used bookstore. Other guests would include  foul mouthed Ruth Zardo, the eminent poet, and the artists Clara and Peter Morrow. Dinner would consist of a simple but hearty stew with a crusty French bread and local wine, followed by cheese, fruit, and coffee.

Source:wallpaperweb.com

Source:wallpaperweb.com

After all my NaNoWriMo frenzy,  nothing would have suited me better than to be taken into the arms of the Three Pines residents. Ah, how they would congratulate me for committing myself to the NaNoWriMo project; I would bask in their approval. After our dinner at Myra’s we would walk through the snowy white wonderland of the village, our boots crunching in the  silent snow. Gabrí, one of the Bed and  Breakfast proprietors, would be waiting up to serve us a snifter of brandy. Then it would be time to go upstairs to sleep in one of the antique beds with its crisp white linen. We would sleep soundly until awoken by the heady aroma of fresh baked croissants and maple cured Canadian bacon cooking on the stove.

Source;hdwallpaperstop.com

Source;hdwallpaperstop.com

I would love to say I would meet you in the town where my own novel takes place, but I don’t yet dare to have such lofty dreams. But if you are game, and want a cozy place to recuperate because of the holidays, or because you have taken the trouble to read my blog posts, I would love to meet you in Three PInes, Monsieur.( Or Mademoiselle, but Monsieur sounds so much more cosmopolitan.)  Come, let us begin to memorize some poetry to recite when we meet Inspector Gamache! Yes, he is real!

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!

Busy Baltimore

Do you ever read articles in the travel section which provide an itinerary for someone who is visiting a city for only a short time? I’ve always loved reading those but at the same time I was skeptical that anyone ever tried to follow those whirlwind timetables. But now I know people DO sightsee at the speed of sound, because I just did it. Here is how it came about.

Him: You need more airline miles.

Me: OK.

Him: So you need to take another trip this year. How about Baltimore? We’ve never been there, and the flight’s only $215.00.

Me: OK.

The next thing I knew I was on my way to the Charming City. Having  only recently returned from a trip to Atlanta I simply didn’t have the energy to do much of the fun research I like to do before a trip. For this adventure we would rely on our wits and our smart phones.  As soon as we checked into our  hotel near the Inner Harbor on Friday afternoon we looked at each other and said, “Let’s get going.”

That  afternoon and evening we burned up the pavement around Inner Harbor.DSC_0273 I don’t know what all we did but in such perfect fall weather it hardly matters what one does. Oh wait, now I do remember. We looked for a place to stop and have a beer while overlooking the harbor, but couldn’t quite find the vibe  we were looking for. Eventually we settled on the least touristy place we could find, Gordon Biersch, and enjoyed  appetizers and beer in the warm afternoon sun. DSC_0565Gordon Biersch was a lucky find for me, because unlike so many other beer places, it had a nice lager selection. ( For those who do not know this, my husband is Mr. I.P.A. I don’t mind going along for the ride, but I can’t drink all those  bitter, heavy beers.) Later  we ate dinner and drank  yet more beer at the Pratt Street Ale House.DSC_0575

DSC_0577The next morning as soon as we woke up we headed out on foot. What about coffee, you ask? My sweet companion got us Illy coffee from the hotel restaurant each morning. What llttle research we had done informed us that Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods. So we set off to find them, starting with  with Mount Vernon. After a brisk walk we arrived at a place my husband had found for breakfast but sadly, it was not open on Saturday.

We were undaunted though, because our next destination was the Walters Museum where we  would simply get something at their cafe. But SURPRISE!!!!! the Walters Museum along with its cafe was closed that day for a special event. By this time I was ready to start gnawing on my shoes.

But instead we crept across the street into the Cozy Corner. It was deserted.  But yes, they were open, and had a choice of an American breakfast menu or an Asian lunch menu. Aaah, a spinach omelet never tasted so good.DSC_0578

Reading on Read Street.

Reading on Read Street.

Fortified by breakfast we hiked on to our next destination: Read Street Books.  DSC_0311Ambiance can be difficult to photograph, so in case I missed the mark in mine, let me just tell you that  you will love  the charm of  this tiny slice- of- heaven bookstore. What makes this spot so enjoyable? It’s the used books, of course. It’s the Frank Sinatra channel on Pandora. It’s the green leather couch.DSC_0302 It is sweet Lisette who was working that day and made sure we knew all about the Charm City Circulator.DSC_0313 DSC_0308Our interlude there refreshed us enough to move on to some other Mount Vernon landmarks: The Basilica,DSC_0580

DSC_0586the Enoch Pratt Free Library,DSC_0587 the Women’s Industrial Exchange.Then we hoofed it over to the West Side, to see the Edgar Allen Poe Gravesite.DSC_0590 This ad for a conspiracy book  about the Catholic Church added to the sense of spookiness.DSC_0363

Exiting the graveyard we re entered the busy urban scene. But not  to relax, not yet. The day was not over. f we hurried we could still  make it to the  B. and O. Railroad Museum.

But we're never too old to play on trains!

But we’re never too old to play on trains!

I wouldn’t call myself a train lover but I did enjoy the exhibit about the part railroads played in the Civil War. We didn’t ride the steam train. but maybe you’d like to.DSC_0380

The sky threatened rain as we left the museum so it seemed a good time to stop in the Camden Pub. We rested our feet while nursing a couple of beers and  enjoyed front row entertainment by our waitress. You see, her mother, aged 92, expects her daughter to take her to do  one of her “bucket list” activities each year on her birthday. She regaled us with tales of their past exploits: riding an elephant, zip lining, rapelling.  What would they do on her next birthday? Sky dive?DSC_0615

Soon we had to either face the elements or stay there for the evening. That wouldn’t have been so bad except that we wanted to get over to Little Italy. So off we went, stopping briefly for our sweaters on our way. We strolled through little Italy at dusk, just as a beautiful carillon of bells played from a Catholic  Church.

Our destination was Heavy Seas, yes, a brew pub, but one that had a decent menu. This was important because we  hadn’t had lunch. I had some lighter beers, along with some yummy oysters, and salmon with cumin. Lovely!DSC_0618

Somehow we managed to propel our tired legs back to the hotel. Total number of steps on my firbit for that day: 23,000!

A Pearl harbor era Coast Guard vessel we passed on the way back to our hotel.

A Pearl harbor era Coast Guard vessel we passed on the way back to our hotel.

We were a little stiff the next morning after all our perambulations of the day before. But despite our sore feet we hit the road again, back over to the Walters Museum. We were the first ones there! I’m sure we walked several mies through that leviathan complex. I paid close attention to the ancient Alexandria section, since I was reading The Alexandria Quartet at the time, and to the netsuke collection, as I had so enjoyed reading The Amber Hare.  We spent hours in this massive  museum full of treasures, marveling that it is free to the public. The museum should be a true point of pride for Baltimore.

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Netsuke Collection.

Netsuke Collection.

Next we headed over to the George Washington Monument, where I enjoyed seeing the little parks that surround it on all sides. DSC_0426About that time we looked at each other and allowed as how it surely would be nice to jump on the Charm City Circulator right about now. Spying a bus stop, we trudged  over and in just a few minutes we boarded the most beautiful bus we’d ever seen. Of course by this time any form of transport would have seemed exquisite beyond compare.

Our next destination was Federal Hill, which we had heard boasted of fun shopping, charming residential streets and the Hill itself which was once the site of a Civil War fort.  I was sure I needed to go in some darling shops. We looked, but lots of the places were closed. But look what we found! A place to rest our very sore feet!DSC_0431DSC_0432 This establishment was all we saw of the retail side of Federal Hill. Eventually we left and hiked over to the Hill. What a fun spot to overlook the Inner Harbor!DSC_0452 Like every other outdoor spot we visited, we could have spent the afternoon there. Then I just couldn’t resist  a stroll down some of the pleasant streets surrounding the Hill.

Neighborhood watch cat.

Neighborhood watch cat.

DSC_0446DSC_0447By then it was late afternoon. We were feeling a bit down because we knew we had to leave the next day, and we had barely scratched the surface of the city. But no one could say we didn’t try!

We didn’t want to walk far for dinner, so we settled an a fairly pedestrian place to eat that night. But it did the job for us. My companion had one last chance for crab cakes and I one last chance for Natty Boh  ( National Bohemian) beer.  We landed back in the hotel early that night to pack.  Steps for the day: 20000! We fell asleep that night with visions in our head of all the things we had managed to pack into 48 hours. Had we visited landmarks and stopped in between for beer? Or had we visited brew pubs and stopped in between for landmarks? Hmmmm. Well, either way, we were busy and beersy in Baltimore!