Poet Masters Murder

What do Homer, Virginia Woolf, applesauce cake, Wales, diary pages, and postmenopausal zest have in common?

They’re all contained within the wide and wonderful brain of writer, teacher, activist, sustainable farmer and now octogenarian, Judy Hogan.

I first met Judy in the public library in downtown Durham, NC, where she was teaching a class she called “A Roadmap Guide for Beginning Writers Using Ezra Pound’s ‘ABC of Reading.'”  A large group of us met weekly to discuss reading assignments which ranged from selections from Homer’s “Odyssey,” Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” and Chaucer to, somewhere in there, bits of Proust and Virginia Woolf. And to read the mostly fiction we budding authors created in response.

I left North Carolina soon thereafter, but ongoing correspondence with Judy over the years kept me informed of her multitudinous activities, which included organizing a Sister Cities project to further understanding between writers in Russia and the United States, teaching classes locally and online, and books, books, books. A list of her many publications can be found here. One I turn to regularly is her “PMZ (postmenopasualzest): Poor Woman’s Cookbook, which includes such recipes such as the hearty rye-soy wholegrain bread at the center of her simple diet and the luscious applesauce cake she’s more-healthily adapted from “Joy of Cooking.”

More about her feisty and independent life can be found at her blog, postmenopausalzest.

She prefaces every day’s work in her special chair where she writes pages in her decades-ongoing diary.

One notion she introduced me to was that of taking a writing holiday: setting aside a day, a weekend, a week, to devote to her own work instead of teaching or nurturing that of others. Her most enviable holidays were spent in Wales, where she made a second home for herself at a friend’s BnB, spending several summer weeks walking, reading, and writing the diary and poetry which have been her trademarks.

Out of those holidays, as well as the poetry she hoped for, she came up with the idea for a mystery series centered around a woman of a certain age, Penny Weaver. (Astute readers will recognize the allusion to one of Judy’s favorite female characters from her beloved classics, Homer’s Penelope.) The first, “Sands of Gower,” is set in a small village on the coast of Wales and depicts Penny as her yearly writing holiday is intruded upon by, you guessed it, murder. We meet a roster of village characters as well as the quirky international guests who disrupt Penny’s quiet BnB. Along the way, we get a real flavor of holidaying in Wales, complete with walks along windy cliffs, digestive biscuits, lots of tea, and Welsh cakes, a kind of scone cooked on a griddle.

The series continues with Penny back in her native North Carolina, where she grows organic vegetables and counsels a growing circle of multi-generational friends and family in the small fictional town of Riverdell. Several of the books involve Judy’s ongoing interest in local politics and activism. The latest, “Death of a Hell-Razor,” returns us to a small, historically black college where Penny does a stint of teaching, a setting first introduced to us in “Killer Frost,” which was a finalist for the Malice Domestic Prize.

As in “Frost,” Penny is deeply involved in trying to help along the disadvantaged students in her remedial and reading classes. Though several seemed destined to flunk out, we root for their efforts and cheer Penny’s encouragement–until we discover that one of them may have committed a murder.Academic cozies abound, but I don’t know any other that feature the struggles specific to the historically black college.

Throughout the now-nine books which make up the Penny Weaver series, we’re interested in “who done it,” but we are even more fascinated by the wise insights of the books’ leading character. Icing on the Welsh cake is the developing relationship between poet-detective and the Welsh policeman which began in “Sands of Gower.”

The series, along with Judy’s other books, are also available at Amazon and on Kindle.

 

 

 

 

 

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Beat Winter with Books

Something about cold soggy January makes me want to bury myself in the long, densely descriptive novels of the Victorians. But I have an equal craving for books with cozy settings, preferably with gardens attached.

I’m satisfying the first need by re-reading “David Copperfield” with an online book group I co-moderate, the House of LitnLife on Goodreads. And with another online book group, Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels. Kind of the two extremes of male Victorian writers: one gives us the full spectrum of British society, with a lot of comic characters thrown in, the other mostly gives us the doings of the upper classes, with arguably more nuanced portrayals.

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This is my first time through Trollope’s political novels, and I’m enjoying the occasional parallels with our own tumultuous times. As well as quietly witty sentences like this one: “Budgets, like babies, are always little loves when first born. But….”

I’m a lot more familiar with Dickens, though I think the last time I read “David Copperfield” was when I forced my then under-ten-year old children to listen to it while we ate our lunches together (not sure their enthusiasm for Dickens ever fully recovered.) But no matter how many times I read him, I always find something new. This time through, I’m particularly admiring the eccentricities of David’s Aunt Betsey Trotwood, who at his birth initially rejects him out of hand because he’s not the niece she wanted. Possibly it’s just that I’m a lot closer to her age than I am to some of the other major characters. But I think it’s also because I appreciate her ability to state her opinions straight out without worrying about how her words might affect her listener. As I age, that seems a more and more desirable quality: with less time left, why hedge and censor?

When I tire of long paragraphs, I switch over to the delightful novels of Miss Read, pseudonym of Dora Jessie Saint, a former schoolmistress who wrote about life in two different fictional villages in rural England. Right now I’m reading her Thrush Green series– I think there are 14 of them. Readers may be more familiar with  her 20 Fairacre books, all narrated by the  “Miss Read” head schoolmistress of the tiny village school.

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Unlike the dramas in a Dickens novel or the political machinations of the Pallisers, not a lot happens in these books. They are more the daily doings of the various rural inhabitants: the couple of teachers who staff the village school, the vicar of the local church, the mostly middle-or older aged men and women who garden and shop and pub-gossip and make tea. They’re novels of an idealized simpler time, I suppose, set in the middle of the last century well before cell phones and 24/7 news, back when villagers walked to local shops instead of supermarkets and had time to linger over tea with their neighbors. I love these books, love spending time with the residents, love their gardens and their walks along quiet wooded lanes. I have a feeling author Jan Karon enjoyed these novels, too–her Mitford series often seems like an American version of Fairacre.

Between immersion in the Victorian age and loitering with Miss Read’s villagers, I suppose I’ll make it through January. But I sure wish we’d move on to spring.

Our Attention, Please

IMG_2579The great thing about a blog is I can write whatever I want. The great thing about a low-traffic blog is that an off-the-wall thought doesn’t get me verbally crucified.

So,  a comment on a front page newspaper story I saw this week which sourced “experts” as speculating that the sharp rise in teen and pre-teen depression is linked to overuse of social media.

Well, sure. I’m many decades past the teen years, and I still get depressed when I look at pictures of everyone else’s picture-perfect lives on Facebook. I know posts are air-brushed, literally and metaphorically, but it still makes me feel bad about what I’m doing or more to the point, not doing. Look at all those parties! Look at all those friends!

Facebook isn’t going to change; what I have to do is dramatically limit my time there. Of course I could quit it altogether, but it’s handy for keeping in touch with extended family members.

Meanwhile, those depressed and anxious pre-teens? My question is not so much why Facebook affects them, it’s why on earth are they spending so much time online in the first place?  Isn’t it bizarre that we’re allowing a whole generation of young people to become damaged by something that doesn’t have the faintest whiff of necessity about it? We make all this noise about the effects of climate change and pollution on our children’s future, but we don’t seem to put much effort into controlling something that’s a lot easier to control than an entire country going fossil-fuel-free.

Not to be one of those “in the olden days” yappers, but…..When my kids were young, their screen time was strictly limited. Yes, this was before cellphones, but we would have done the same with them. If we’d allowed our kids to even have cellphones. We kept the computer to an hour a day and that was an ‘earned’ hour: schoolwork, chores, and some kind of physical activity, preferably outdoors, had to happen first. Period. The television didn’t go on until after dark, and then only for an hour, max.

Yes, they were homeschooled, so a parent, usually me, was pretty much always there to monitor what they were doing. And I understand that homeschooling is a luxury most people can’t indulge in–we were able to only because as my eldest son’s blog OnBudgeting.com points out, we were incredibly frugal and managed on one income. But any family can decide to spend what time they have becoming more involved with their children. And I don’t mean driving them to activities or earning more money to buy them more stuff. Just–paying attention to them.

Teaching them to garden. Cook. Build a shelf or a doghouse. Creating a scrapbook or a quilt. And of course, reading. (Books). It doesn’t really matter what. Just face-to-face, side-by-side together time, where neither child nor parent is continually checking that oh-so-necessary(?) cellphone.

I was in a coffee shop the other day sitting near a young mother who had three girls under the age of four. I couldn’t figure out what was different about them until they’d gone, replaced by yet another person hunched over a laptop. Then it hit me: the mother didn’t have a cellphone visible. Her entire attention was on the girls, whose entire attention was on her and each other, and the conversation between them never stopped. What were those girls learning about their importance to their mother vs a child whose mother’s eyes are always darting back to her cellphone?

All to say, seems to old-time me that one way to lessen the epidemic of young-teen depression is pretty simple. Give our kids our time instead of another device.

 

Why Life isn’t Like a Snoozing Cat

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Doesn’t it seem sometimes that life has too many challenges? I know I give a green-eyed glare of envy at those whose days seem smooth and effortless, and I think, wouldn’t that be lovely?

Well, maybe not so much.

Without minor keys and a few discords, music would be as vapid as the stuff they play in elevators and dental offices. If our days slid along as comfortable as a snoozing cat, how would we develop our character muscles?

Maybe I’ve been watching too much “Call the Midwife,” but I find an analogy in the way newborns begin to breathe. It’s the very stress of that tumultuous trip through the birth canal where baby is squeezed to heck by those powerful uterine contractions, that massages the amniotic fluid out of baby’s lungs, preparing her for an easy transition to breathing air. Babies born by c-section, as our granddaughter was last spring, are more likely to need their airways suctioned. I still remember watching a nurse pummel our newborn granddaughter’s back because hours after birth her breathing was still heavy with mucous.

I suspect that some of the struggles we encounter in our non-infant lives end up, in the long run, helping us as well. I’m not saying that hard times are part of some master plan, perhaps anymore than the hardship of labor was until Eve ate that apple. But since we have them, they do seem to give us something besides pain.

I think, for instance, of Helen Keller. If she hadn’t, as a toddler, been so ill that she became blind and deaf, what might she have been? Perhaps just another pretty little Alabama girl, coddled by her parents into a pretty little young lady whose future might have revolved around dressing pretty, acting pretty, and marrying well so she could raise a pretty little Alabama girl of her own.

Instead, she struggled: to find language, to discover that words have meaning, to make a place for herself in a world hardly catering to the blind and deaf. And so she became the Keller of fame: Radcliffe College grad, author, lecturer, strong woman of character. Surely the very challenges she was dealt made her what she became.

It’s a reason not to hover too closely over our children’s lives, perhaps. We need to let them stumble a bit, so they know they can right themselves.  For example, last week our daughter got caught in Detroit when a lengthy de-icing of one plane made her miss another. She handled the surprise overnight stay with grace and courage, with only a few texts and calls home. Not that I’d wish the experience on her, but now she knows what to do next time she gets stuck somewhere, and more importantly, knows she can handle it.

There’s a balance, of course. As a young teen, I got stranded in DC one evening when whatever bus or train supposed to get me home had issues. Unlike my daughter, I didn’t have the option of contacting my parents for support, emotional or otherwise. I was on my own, and I knew it,  and though I learned, once again, that I could handle things on my own, I was also confirmed in my belief that the world was a harsh and unsafe place to be.

As I said, there’s a balance: let our offspring cope with challenges, but if possible, tailor our involvement according to their ages and abilities.

But let’s not eliminate the challenges altogether. It seems that our struggles do more than just etch lines in our faces.

Have you seen any benefits from challenges you’ve faced?

 

Waking up to the Light

 

The last couple of weeks, my husband and I have been living in time past. Not wallowing in nostalgia, I hasten to add. No, we’ve been experimenting with something new: keeping our schedule to the now-expired Daylight Savings Time instead of switching with the rest of the country back to Standard.

Like most of the state of Arizona and Hawaii, which refuse to use Daylight Savings, we are creating our own little culture of time. Though unlike those two, we’re not doing it because we have an abundance of sunlight, but because we’re trying to grab every little bit we can get.

An odd thing to do, perhaps, but it seems to be a pattern for us, living lives society has moved on from. Though I’ve been intrigued recently to notice that society seems to be shifting back to some places we never left.

Which is another story for another time.

It’s hard, being slightly out-of-step. The time thing nearly did me in. If I wanted to wake up at my usual 5:30, my old 5:30, that is, was I getting up at new 4:30, new 6:30 or plain old new 5:30? Yes, I know all about “Spring Forward” and “Fall Back,” but those terms generally send me into a mental tongue-tie. Am I falling back, or is it just my clock? And if the latter, where am I?

It helped that my husband put an extra clock over our stove clock, with one set to Daylight Savings and the other to Standard.  I just had to remember which was which, and not to get addled when NPR announced their time.img_2615

What helped more was realizing I was now living in the time zone my son and his family inhabit: just think Eastern. Which was fine until I set out to doctors’ appointments in a nearby city in the Eastern Time Zone. My routine was to think of those as being an hour earlier than they really were, so I’d arrive at the correct time. But was I leaving an hour earlier current real time or my real time, and if the latter, what time was it really going to be when I arrived there, when the city was already an hour later?

I told you I was confused. I wonder how it is for those Arizonians who don’t switch.

My salvation has been our pets. They don’t care about clock time; it’s stomach hour that matters. Never mind that one cat’s stomach tells him that any hour is good for supper and the more often the better, I can count on the fact that they expect breakfast soon after six and supper twelve hours later. That’s Daylight Savings Time. It doesn’t matter that my phone and the rest of the country says I can sleep in.

All this confusion does have a purpose: my husband can arrive home from work while it’s still daylight and get out to the woods or garden, which he needs. And I get just a few minutes more of light, which seasonally-affected me really needs.

How do you chase the light these darkening winter days?

 

Chasing the Sun

Remember the great solar eclipse of 2017? To me, as remarkable as the sight in the sky was the sight of the crowds of people staring up at it. For a few hours, we pushed aside work stress and political mess and looked up into the heavens.

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On a fraction of the scale, that’s what I saw at the coast last week. Every morning,  stalwart bands of people of all ages stopped whatever else they were doing (mostly sleeping, I imagine) and gathered along the beach to watch the sun come up. The sunrises were glorious, but the knowledge that so many other humans were paying homage to them was uplifting, too.

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We are so used to controlling everything around us that it’s got to be healthy to stop every so often to recognize the forces in the universe we can’t control. What time the sun actually slips over the horizon, for instance. Modern-me, I caught myself glancing at my phone to check what time the weather app said the sun was supposed to come up. I even felt a burst of impatience when I thought it was taking just a little too long to meet the electronically-promised deadline.

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I also realized after a day or two of pre-dawn walks along the shore that I didn’t really have to walk east as far and fast as I could go: my efforts weren’t going to make the sun appear any faster. I’d see the dawn just as quickly if instead of hurrying far down the beach, I plunked down in front of our condo with a mug of coffee.

You might wonder why, on vacation, get up before six instead of sleeping in. There’s just something about trying to catch the moment when that tiny orange ball appears. There’s also the reality that once it does, it’s a only a short time before that lovely, sought-after phenomenon becomes a nemesis: blazing, eye-straining, skin-blistering light and heat which no amount of sunscreen, hats, and umbrellas can control, nature once again proving that it can’t so easily be tamed.

And if we needed any more proof of that, we’re watching Hurricane Michael as it barrels towards the Gulf Coast right about where we were last week. I’m remembering the miles of cars lined up on the interstate, Bonnaroo-style, waiting to turn off onto the state highway that heads south to the coast. All those months of planning and preparation to get there, and– so much for fall break. So much for our assumption that the natural world will be just where we want it to be, as we want it to be, when we want it to be.

We don’t run the world, and isn’t that a good thing.

Meanwhile, to those in the hurricane’s path, I’m thinking about you today.

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His Eye is On the Seagull

img_26742We’re down on the white sandy beaches of the Gulf Coast for a couple of days, and this morning’s watch-the-sunrise-walk and swim brought me right back to the old question:

What’s with this prayer thing, anyway?

The complex we’re staying in has a fifty-yard outdoor pool, and being a compulsive lap swimmer, I’m getting out to it before the opening bell to get some swimming in before the ankle-biters and raft-shriekers throng in. For two mornings in a row now, I’ve had the place to myself, with the exception of two women who stand in the shallow end and chat together. This quiet time is an amazing gift, given that down here, it still feels like high summer, and there are more than enough families with rafts, noodles, high-pitched shriekers and splashers who take over the pool later on in the day.

So I started wondering: have I gotten this blessing of empty pool because the little no-neck-monsters are still eating their Fruit Loops and watching cartoons? That is, has it been sheer, delightful coincidence? Or– is the Almighty actually arranging it so that of the hundreds of people staying in this complex, not a single one looks down from their balcony at the shimmering blue water below and and decides the pool is irresistible?

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The question made me think of a conversation I had last week with a friend whose 90-something year-old mother is doing well after a long cancer surgery, despite going into it with cardiac issues and cautions from the surgeon. My friend, not herself a church-goer, said she knows it was because of all the many prayers her mother’s friends had offered up. It’s just like the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” she said, referring to the scene where hundreds of prayers for Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey waft upwards to what Angel Clarence calls the Chief.

Well, ok, but what then do you say to all the people whose surgeries don’t go well? Were their prayers just not strong enough? Was God too busy tending to global affairs to listen? Was–horrible thought–God making an executive decision? “You over there, you’re good to go. You in the corner, sorry, not this time.”

This is not a new question. Not of mine and certainly not of others. I think it whenever someone says, “we had a safe trip. God was really watching out for us.”  Which immediately brings up the antithesis: if we have a fender bender on the way home or hit a logjam on 24,  does that mean God wasn’t looking after us, and if not, why not?

I’ve talked to enough priests and theologians to understand that there’s no one perfectly-phrased prayer, no magic incantation that’s going to make the difference between which prayer is answered and which isn’t.

I’ve also often heard the belief that ‘whatever happens is all part of a master plan.’ Which to me leads us uneasily back to the notion of God as Executive giving some the green light and others the back door.  Anyway, I’m not entirely sure that an empty pool for my sole benefit is part of a grand divine scheme.

Then there’s the vaguer, ‘Prayer is for us as much as God because it puts us in closer intimacy with God.’ That’s nice, but it kind of begs the question.

 

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So this is a post without a conclusion. Because I don’t have one. Just the question, which I imagine I’ll still be ruminating on tomorrow morning, whether the pool is empty for me or not:

Why are some prayers answered, and not others?

Because “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” yes, but we all know that some of them are still getting munched on by hawks.