Pandemic Idyll

It was the most beautiful summer I can remember here. Day after golden day unfolded in rich, scented glory. The sun, the heat, the lushness of the woods and garden, the perfect refreshment of the lake were everything anyone could wish for. But it was an odd summer, too: no picnics with friends, no Memorial Day, no parties at the lake, no baseball in May and June, no Fourth of July, no parade, no fireworks, no farmers market, no family reunion, no Labor Day end of summer celebrations.  There were no markers, no points in time. Just the silent turning of the earth, the move toward the sun and then away from it, the days turning, too, from morning to afternoon to evening. The light lengthening, the light retreating. The restless sleep. Then morning again.

It’s difficult to explain the dreamy quality of life these days. I tell myself it should be a time of joy and productivity, but somehow it isn’t. It’s not a happy dreaminess—I don’t know how it could be—but it’s not unhappy, either. It’s a sense of unreality; as if time is over. 

While the pandemic rages on in the world, I feel a bit like a medieval monk, having raised the drawbridge and retired from the world to write my scrolls. My husband and I work from home at the best of times, and aside from the busy travel schedule we both had, our lives are essentially unchanged.

I am not ungrateful. But I am puzzled by the peculiar—I won’t say lethargy, exactly—but fatigue we both feel. He, in particular, has been working harder than ever. He has demands on him. My own deadlines are mostly self-imposed.  But I have been in a heavy languor, having finished my novel in December, and then almost immediately plunging into grief. For the first three months after Moses died, I was deeply stricken. Then came Eli and the pandemic, which were, I suppose, distractions.

It feels now as if we’re on one long snow day from real life. It’s an illusion, of course. We don’t get to make up the days lost in our lives. They won’t come back. But the sense of being out of time is life-changing, and I sometimes fear I will never have ambition or energy again. I can’t even really say why.

The wheel of days keeps turning, but our lives feel stopped.  I am one of the lucky few. I am living in a dream, away from the world, with the capability of tuning it out almost completely if I choose. Maybe I am numb to keep myself from missing things too keenly, from worrying about the world too much, from feeling there’s more than the usual tragedy and suffering. Or maybe it’s a lack of stimulation. There’s nothing but the weather to help discern one day from another.

Last year in August I came down with a severe case of influenza, picked up while cuddling my sick grandson. He had a mild fever and a cough. But it was the sickest I have ever been in my life, with a terrible, painful, racking cough, and high fever. There are two or three days that I don’t remember. I couldn’t eat. I didn’t want to. I could only cough in agony and sleep for almost ten days. It took me months to recover. Looking back, it feels like a warning. If I was that sick with regular flu, I suspect I would not survive this. 

So when I do go out, every minor activity requires preparation: the mask, the hand sanitizer, the wipes, the gloves—just in case. The stress of being out in the world feels at the moment like a mere nuisance. It isn’t until I get home that I feel the exhaustion of it. But that’s not the source of my daily fatigue.

We have no reason to be out and contributing to the spread of disease, so we stay at home. Very few, limited family visits, no restaurants, no excursions with friends, no shopping. No hugs. The annual summer month with our daughter and French grandchildren was cancelled. By the time we see them two years will have passed. My sister has a new house in another state I haven’t seen. Our granddaughter on the east coast has started walking. My annual trip to Minnesota for a friend’s birthday is cancelled.

These are very small things in the wake of so many larger sacrifices by so many others. But I am ashamed to admit that it can be hard.  For those who have lost their lives, and for those who grieve them, just one more of these slow, languid days would be a prize beyond reach. It is a sin not to be grateful every day for my family’s good fortune. But sometimes even the counting of blessings lies heavily against the heart. Everything seems to require tremendous effort.

The sunrises are coming later and later as autumn approaches. Dawn is marked by the stirrings of the geese, but I realize I haven’t heard a robin in weeks. Auggie lies nearby, waiting impatiently for the signal that I may be ready to take him outside for the first green ball session of the day. Eli snoozes on my foot. He has a softer disposition than Auggie, with less drive and more patience. Pete has already disappeared, without greeting, to lie at my husband’s feet in his office. With limited sight and hearing he moves in an ever decreasing world, but still loved, still happy, still nagging for his dinner.

We all have dreams, and hopes, and longings to color our thoughts, but life consists primarily of how we spend our days. We will go for a walk today, and do some chores, and call my friend for her birthday. I will do a crossword puzzle, with its utterly inexplicable satisfactions. There are pleasures in a clean floor, an orderly room, the first cup of coffee, the scent of clean air, the affection of an animal. We will watch the sunrise, walk in the sunlight, play ball with the dogs, and drink wine in the golden red light of evening, somewhat mitigated by the annoyance of mosquitoes. And then we will go to bed, and to sleep, hoping, in an uneasy world, for the wisdom and grace to appreciate what we have. 

Wisconsin Author J.F. Riordan on the Beauty of the Mundane and Her Life in Exile

By Doug Moe

From Mystery to Me Bookstore’s monthly newsletter.

It was three decades ago when J.F. Riordan discovered the island that would become her muse for four novels and counting.
         “I was in Door County,” she told me recently by phone, “just looking for something to do, and decided why not go see what’s on the island?”
         Washington Island sits some seven miles northeast of the tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula and is reachable by ferry.
         “From the first moment I set foot on that ferry,” Riordan says, “the magic of the place swept over me. And it’s really never gone away.”
         Riordan appeared at a Mystery to Me virtual author event September 10 at 7 p.m. with A Small Earnest Question, her new novel and the fourth in her North of the Tension Line series, which was also the title of Riordan’s 2014 debut. Click here to watch a replay of the event!
         The books have earned praise for their mix of mystery, humor, and the inevitable intrusion of small-town politics into daily island life. Riordan herself says, “The beauty of the mundane is really what my novels are about.” She said it while we were discussing her earlier life as a professional opera singer.
         Riordan was born in New Jersey but moved as a child with her family to Michigan, then Wisconsin. She learned to love music early, from her father, whose mother took him to weekly performances of the famed Metropolitan Opera. Riordan had barely reached her teens when she announced she would be an opera singer.
         “I was probably about 13,” she says. “I started preparing myself quite seriously. It was completely lucky that it turned out I actually had talent. That wasn’t a given.”
         At 16, Riordan left high school to enroll at the University of New Mexico, drawn by a particular teacher to study voice. “A mixed bag,” she says now of the decision. “Sixteen is pretty young.” Still, she fulfilled her goal and became a professional, a life less glamorous than perhaps perceived, with its backstage squabbles and constant travel to opera houses in small European cities.
         “I was lonely,” she says. “Homesick.”
         The experience produced an epiphany: “Your life is really how you spend your days. It’s your everyday life. It’s not some grandiose dream. I was miserable.”
         Riordan moved back, eventually earning a college degree in English and teaching three years in the Milwaukee inner city, where she coached a forensics team.

It was after she began another job, working for a foundation doing philanthropic research, that Riordan began to write, squeezing in time early mornings or late at night. She likes the essay form and considered a nonfiction book on her teaching experience. Slowly, however, the fictional story of former Chicago newspaper reporter turned freelance writer Fiona Campbell and her eccentric cast of friends and adversaries on Washington Island took shape.
“I think it took seven or eight years to write,” Riordan says. “There’s a lot of self-doubt and questioning when you’re writing a first book because you don’t know if anybody wants it. You don’t know if it’s ever going to be read or published.”
Her husband, Charlie, was supportive, laughing in the right places when he read the early chapters, and bluntly counseling her not to think about agents or publishers, when she raised the subject. “None of that is your business right now,” Charlie said. “Go upstairs and write the damn book.”
When the manuscript of North of the Tension Line was finished, Riordan sent it to a few agents, scattershot, uncertain of the process. “I submitted my manuscript to someone who specialized in historic railroads,” she says.
She also sent it to a few trusted friends, one of whom worked in the same office building as a book publisher. This friend’s wife loved the novel, and that was enough for the friend to talk to the publisher, Eric Kampmann of Beaufort Books, who gave Riordan the contact information of his editor-in-chief.
Riordan sent the manuscript that night, a Thursday. Charlie counseled patience. “You know, it will be a month before they look at it. Start another book. It will be a while.”
The following Monday, Riordan was at home checking email after a busy day at work. The editor was back in touch: “Loved the book, couldn’t put it down, read it all weekend. Attached is a contract.” Charlie was in another room. Riordan recalls, “He said I made a noise that made him think there was an animal in the house.”
A life-changing moment. “That never happens,” Riordan says. “I was very fortunate.”
And – clearly – highly-talented. Three more Tension Line novels have followed, and a book of essays, Reflections on a Life in Exile.

Of the new novel, A Small Earnest Question,Riordan says she wrote two endings and didn’t decide which one to put in the book until a week before she submitted the manuscript. The title came out of something her copy editor said in a meeting.
“She is not a hesitant or timid person,” Riordan says of the editor, who nevertheless framed a query by saying, “I have a small earnest question.”
Riordan recalls, “As soon as she said it, I said, ‘Oh, my God. That’s the title of my next book.’”
Riordan’s love of Washington Island – so evident in the novels – is also mirrored in the title of her book of essays.
“When I say I live in exile in Mequon, Wisconsin, people think I’m kidding,” Riordan says. “But I’m not. I mean that quite sincerely. I’d love to live on the island. It’s just not practical. Trying to get your whole family to pull up stakes and live on a remote island in the middle of nowhere is kind of a hard sell.”
She concludes, “The desire to be on the island is part of my impetus to keep writing. I can pretend I’m there.”

***

A note from J. F. Riordan:

Mystery to Me in Madison, Wisconsin is one the most charming bookstores anywhere. and one of my favorites to visit. Help keep our neighborhoods filled with lovely stores like this by buying my books from an independent bookseller.

***

You can support Mystery to Me by buying J.F. Riordan’s books here.

Spring and all

img_1531It is the time of year when life blooms. The frogs are singing, the geese are still flying overhead to the place where they will spend the night. The robins chirrup the call that means, to me, dawn and dusk. But if I stand in my driveway, with the dogs lying still, I can hear things growing. Literally. There is a rustle in the woods that does not come from an animal’s movement. It is the slow, steady creep of leaves and stems and flowers, finding their place in the light and air.

The time of year is nostalgic with memories of childhood spring concerts, graduations, proms, life events. The soft green nacensce of leaves and flowers, the scent of bloom; the memory of love; of longing. Spring smells of all these things.

My job is ending. I don’t know when I will work again, but my husband has declared it a day of liberation. We drink old champagne, the sound of birds and lawn mowers in the background, the birds singing their old, unchanging songs. I hear the robins, the cardinals, the sparrows, the meadow larks; the woodpeckers, and the phoebes. The bird songs are mixed with the soft insistence of puppy Auggie, whining under his breath that I should pay attention to him, to his green ball.

The lilies of the valley are still coiled in tight rolls, waiting to unfold. The bluebells have begun to bloom, but they have not yet burst into riot. The narcissi spill their scent upon the air. The peonies push their red shoots up, and I look for a careful placement of the metal rings that will keep their blooms from lying on the ground a few weeks hence. I dream of them all winter, of their exuberant, joyous explosion.

The turkeys rise up, no longer visible on the ground in the woods, from green bowers into their now hidden roosts. The deer chuff in the woods as they browse, but the green leaves hide their movement. A big raccoon makes her cumbersome way down a tall tree to begin her nighttime rambles.

It is spring. The world is poised. A great writer died last night, and I feel the world’s aftershocks. We are smaller now, without him.

Nevertheless, this old song sings. The frogs, the geese, the robins, the rustling leaves. It is soft-scented and sweet.

The world goes on, beautiful and ruthless. We watch– worn, enchanted, hopeful, but powerless to change the slow, hard progress of life.

 

 

BOOK LAUNCH EVENT!

I hope you will join me at the Milwaukee launch of Robert’s Rules, Book Three of North of the Tension Line on Thursday, May 24th at 7 pm, at Boswell Book Company.  For writers like me, operating a bit below the radar, these things are very much group efforts. I need your help to get my book off the ground. That’s why they call it a launch! RobsRules

Here’s a blurb from the book: “Robert’s Rules is Book Three in the award-winning North of the Tension Line series, set on a remote island in the Great Lakes. Called a modern-day Jane Austen, author J.F. Riordan creates wry, engaging tales and vivid characters that celebrate the well-lived life of the ordinary man and woman.”

First of all, please come! I would love to meet you, or if you’re an old friend, to see you again. A big crowd tells the bookstore that my books are worth the effort. Bring your friends, your book club, your Moose lodge, your groupies.

Second, please call or visit Boswell, and pre-order. Pre-orders are a very big deal in the publishing industry, and can make or break a book. If you can’t make it to Boswell, please go to your favorite bookseller, or online. Please let me know that you can join me in giving Robert’s Rules a successful launch.  Let’s boost it so high that everyone can see it!

I hope to see you there!

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J.F. Riordan

 

Lost and Found

Shortly after my mother’s death, about three years ago, my sister gave me a gift: a pair of earrings she had had made from my father’s monogrammed sterling silver cuff links, still nestled in cream velvet in their original oval purple velvet box. I was touched and delighted by them, excited to wear them, and to have this keepsake.

One winter afternoon, I wore them for the first time, and went shopping with a friend. We had fun, wandering from one shop to the next, and spending a fair amount of time trying on hand-knitted hats. I guess our ears were cold.

It was about an hour later that I realized I was wearing only one earring. The mood of the afternoon was instantly altered. I tried not to show how upset I was, reminding myself that it was just a thing. We retraced our steps, I went through all the hats, gently shaking them, and looking for something caught in them. I crawled on the floor of the shop. Hopefully, I left my name and number with several of the stores we had been in, but I never heard from anyone. It was gone.

I never said anything to my sister. I put the one cufflink/earring away in its ancient purple velvet box, and promised myself that someday I would have it made into a necklace. But I felt sick at the loss.

Yesterday was my birthday, and although I try hard to be grateful to be having a birthday, I spent the day fighting off a case of melancholy. I felt the passing of time, the shortening of the horizon, and a soft, persistent nostalgia for my late parents. Don’t misunderstand: there were cards, and gifts, and flowers, and phone calls, greetings from friends and strangers, a snowstorm, and best of all, an advance copy of my new novel in the mail. Nevertheless, I spent the day in an uncharacteristic lethargy, unable to accomplish much of anything.

Toward the end of the day, though, I bestirred myself to straighten our dark, cozy library for the evening. I had recently redone the room as a surprise for my husband, and had emptied the shelves and cleared all the surfaces before and after I painted. The little brass tables had gotten wiped and polished, and even the bottles on the bar cart had been dusted. I oiled the wood. On Friday, our cleaning lady went over everything again, so it all sparkled.

I lit a fire, and some candles, I put on my favorite Beethoven piano sonata, which reminds me of my father’s last days. Feeling both sorrowful and affectionate, I began stacking the week’s collection of books, papers, to make some room on the table, when something caught my eye. On the table—the table I had emptied and polished twice in the past week—was a small oval silver shape. It was an earring.

Unbelieving, I went to my bureau where the purple box was kept. The one earring was in the box. The other was in my hand.

I immediately texted my cleaning lady. Yes, she had found it in the couch, and forgotten to say anything.

But here’s the thing. In three years, the house has been cleaned many times. The couch has been vacuumed at least every other week. There is a perfectly rational explanation for how the earring got there. But it feels, to me, as if I had a visitation, and I can’t help but believe that on this melancholy birthday, as I listened to the music that brings him so vividly to mind, my father reached through the weave of time. Warmed and happier, I wore the earrings last night, ate cake, and drank champagne.

Wisdom tells us not to put too much value in things, or to choose mysticism over reason. But sometimes when we don’t expect it, everything shifts, the lines can blur, and the momentary mysteries we see instead make life’s realities both rich and beautiful.

It was a happy birthday.

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Souvenir

My mother outlived my father by several years, and when she died, my sister and I faced the sysyphean task of cleaning out their house. This included going through my father’s shop in the basement and in the garage, where he did everything from making wooden lamp bases on his lathes, to machining new parts for his car, to carrying out scientific experiments. I’m fairly certain that he never threw anything away. Nothing.

For my sister and me, each decision to keep or discard bore an emotional weight that devastated us both. It took some months, and we were weary in heart and soul both during the task, and for a long while after. Frankly, it would have been much easier for us if my parents had followed the modern art of “tidying-up”. But if they had, so much would have been lost.

The word souvenir comes from the French: a thing that makes you remember. And, perhaps that is what exhausted us so much: every little item we found had a memory attached. My mother’s battered ancient fruitcake tin, where she kept her needles, pins, and thread, and which was always hidden under her chair in the living room. My father’s homemade work aprons that had so often been our gifts to him on father’s day or his birthday.; his navy insignia; his little leather notebooks where he kept lists of books he wanted to read, recordings he wanted to buy, the names, ranks, stations, and bunk numbers of everyone on his ship during World War II,  poems he wanted to remember, a recipe for applejack eggnog.  Even my grandmother’s things were still enmeshed in the collection: her vanity set; her hair ornaments; her love letters. My sister dissolved into tears one evening when we had finished. “I feel as if I am throwing Mom and Daddy away.”

But the reality is that we couldn’t keep it all. So painstakingly, emotionally, and exasperatedly, we combed through the house as if it were an archeological dig. And, in a way, I suppose, it was.

Among the things I found was a dirty metal file box with little plastic drawers for sorting diodes, resistors, and transistors and other early electronic parts. The box had stood on my father’s workbench for as long as I can remember. At the top was my name, printed out in the same style as the labels on each drawer.

I remember the day my name came to be on that box. I was about three, and my father had received a new gadget in the mail: a label maker that used long flat spools of plastic to impress letters on. It was an exciting thing. I remember my father showing me what it did by painstakingly printing out the letters of my name, and then pasting the result at the top of the box.

Seeing that box on his workbench, years after his death, brought me fully back to that moment. I remembered the smell of cut metal and wood, the difficulty of seeing the top of the bench unless I were given a little stool to stand on. I remember my pride in seeing my name on the top of that box, and mostly, I remember being loved as clearly as if I had been embraced.

There is a–by now–somewhat aging trend in the world of home interiors known as “tidying up”. The process, which is a method of decluttering and living a minimalist life, has an almost spiritual quality, in that it claims it will change your life, and its adherents have the tone and enthusiasms of Nineteenth Century evangelists.

Dad's diode caseThere is a vaguely moralistic and superior tone taken by these doyens of home organization. They are the new Puritans. No one needs stuff. No one needs other people’s stuff. It is clutter. It clutters your home and your life. In this age of materialism, when we all have bulging closets, attics, basements, and enough stuff to create another entirely separate household, people’s interest in the process is perfectly understandable.

But, had my father not kept his old things–radio parts that were no longer needed by any working radio–my memory of the label-making would have been lost to me, for there would have been no material thing in the world to remind me of it. That moment would have been lost to me forever.

This is the value of things, perhaps, even, of clutter. It is memories that make us who we are; which haunt us; which enrich and warm us; which remind us of how to be better. And the things, they are the memory triggers. They bring back the moments we might have forgotten in the depths of time: of my mother in her kitchen, or cutting off a button thread with her teeth; my grandmother combing her hair, of picking her up at the bus station and sitting next to her in the car, touching the softness of her fur coat; my father listening to opera at high volume while he worked on his car. These are moments that form us; that make us ourselves.

I will admit that I have kept too many things. We jokingly refer to our garage as “the home for wayward chairs.” I have much of my parents’ good mahogany furniture, their wing chairs and their china cupboard. I have my grandmother’s vanity. I have all my father’s designs, and the paperwork for his one hundred twenty-something patents. It is a lot, and it can be overwhelming sometimes.

But I’ll take clutter any day. It is the price of remembering how it felt to be a little girl who was loved by her father.

Tidying up, indeed.

 

Idle wishes

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Over the course of the nearly twenty years we have lived here, there is a particular route I often took with the dogs, through the woods, and around an open field. It used to be an uncivilized, practically forgotten place, where we never met anyone except skunks (see preceding posts), raccoons, and the occasional squirrel with a death wish. But, sadly, the woods have been upgraded with wood-chipped paths, new signs with rules that forbid unleashed dogs, and other niceties which are not improvements. There are always people there, now, so we don’t go very often anymore. There aren’t many places where big dogs can just run free without other dogs around.

When we do go, I choose odd times of day and bad weather, hoping to improve the odds that we won’t encounter anyone, and we can flout the rules with wildly happy, romping dogs. There are a few other stalwarts who seem to take the same approach.

One is a runner whom we have met on multiple occasions. He is not a young man. He has a long, grizzled beard, twinkly blue eyes, and a deeply genial and sincere manner. He drives a beat-up old pickup truck, which I have come to know. There is a place in the trail where people coming from opposite directions can suddenly encounter one another without warning, and the first time we met, it was there. The dogs were happily rummaging and trotting ahead of me, when suddenly there was a figure running toward us.

Immediately, I called Moses, the scary one, to my side, and he obeyed. But Pete, who is deaf, and Auggie, the headstrong puppy, would not come. Auggie throws himself at life in general, but also at turkeys, deer, strangers, and me, in particular. I once looked out into the woods and saw Auggie joyously flying first at one line of turkeys–all four feet in the air–and without waiting to see their startled flight into the trees, turning to hurl himself at the other line behind him. There is no malice in it, just pure exuberance, and even after two levels of obedience, it’s a personality trait that I am having the devil of a time training out of him. He has a characteristic German Shepherd stubborn streak that makes him very different from Moses.

At nine months Auggie was already well over ninety pounds, and once launched, he is a projectile who can take a person down. Now–to my horror–in his customary expression of puppy enthusiasm, Auggie ran to the man and joyously flung himself at the his chest, paws first. I was expecting threats and anger, but instead the man laughed gently. “Hello, puppy!” he said, and kept running to the sound of my increasingly urgent commands mixed with profuse apologies. “It’s okay,” said the man as he ran past. “I like dogs.”

Since then we have met several times a month. Never at the same time. I take care now to take a different route so we can’t accidentally encounter anyone. When I see the runner, I call the big dogs and keep them off the path until he passes. He thanks me each time.

On Christmas Eve, on one of our solitary walks, we met him again. There was a little bit of fresh snow on the ground, and the dogs were filled with energy and eager to run. We went off on our different paths, and all was well. We were almost back to the car when I heard myself being called. The runner was coming toward me with his hand extended. “You dropped one of your leashes back there.” I thanked him, surprised that he had come all the way back, out of his way, to do this nice thing.

The logistics would have been tricky, and it would probably have been a little odd, but I would like to have given him a Christmas present.  He’s a fairly random stranger, but I feel as if our encounters are important. Life’s texture comes from these small things.