Building Jerusalem

Yesterday I took a handful of earth and sprinkled it over Margaret’s grave. It’s a ritual whose insight was born in millennia of human grief, giving hard reality to the shock and disbelief of those first days; forcing confrontation with the black hole of mourning. It was a small outdoor service, with only fourteen of us, and in the midst of wild autumn storms, the rain stopped, and from a deep blue sky the sun shone on the yellow leaves above my home church’s tiny columbarium. 

Margaret and I spent time together last week for only the second time since the pandemic. I brought Eli to visit, and we went for a walk. She gave Eli treats. Her daughter texted me that night to say that Margaret was the happiest she had been in a long time; how excited she was about Eli; how beautiful she had found him. I examined my conscience about why I had not gone to see her sooner, but I am still desperately grateful that we had that afternoon.

Margaret Rose was born in Sheffield England in 1930, a contemporary of the princess who shared her name. Sheffield was a manufacturing town, and when the blitz came, it was heavily targeted by the Nazis. She lived with her family in a block of rowhouses, all sharing a wall with the house next door. When the air raids came, the neighbors would crawl through holes in the cellar walls to huddle together, perhaps trying to get the little ones to sleep.

One morning they emerged from their shelter after a night of bombing and found that the other side of the street—identical to their own—had been flattened. Everyone was dead. 

Her father packed them up and walked the 3 miles to the bus stop so they could stay with an aunt in the country. As they passed through the devastated city, he hoisted Margaret’s little sister onto his shoulders, and told his children to close their eyes so as not to see the gruesome sights of human carnage along the way. “Close your eyes, and take my hand. Trust me.” Margaret peeked, and to the end of her life she was haunted by the sights of her neighbors arms and legs lying disconnected among the rubble. 

She told me she still dreamed of the terror of those nights, the bombs  screaming and exploding, the children crying, the adults bravely cheerful in the face of utterly random death. From the safety of her aunt’s house they watched as the night sky above Sheffield—some 30 miles away—lit up with fire.  Sheffield was bombed nearly to obliteration, and the casualties were overwhelming. 

Life was unimaginably hard. The rubble from the bombings wasn’t cleared away, because there was no one to clear it: all the men were at war. There was a shortage of everything: housing, clothing, fuel, and food. Margaret had a passion for chocolate that may have intensified in the rationing of sugar, butter, flour, milk, eggs, meat, and chocolate. Her mother and father would give her their chocolate ration cards, knowing how much she adored it.

Margaret had a collection of stories, and she told them regularly. She was, in Ray Bradbury’s interesting observation, a living time machine, able to bring to life moments that to me seemed ancient history. As she approached her ninetieth birthday her short-term memory was failing dramatically, but she remembered the past in great detail. Her conversation was sprinkled with her well-worn tales, told anew as to a fresh audience. Each visit, each phone conversation became a ritual of story and repetition, a bit like the comforting ritual of the Anglican Church to which we both belong. At first I was frustrated and inwardly impatient, but she took the same pleasure in telling each time, so I learned to lean back and allow her stories to wash over me, giving her the responses I thought she would like most, even if I’d heard it again only a few moments before.  

She married the love of her life, a British airman, and together they emigrated to Canada, and then to the United States. They loved to dance, they participated in theater. They had a family, with children and grandchildren, and many dogs.

Margaret was a dog lover from her earliest days. She worked as a volunteer at the local Humane Society for years, and inevitably brought more than one home. “I couldn’t live without dogs,” she told me. Her mother had forbidden dogs in the house, and one of Margaret’s stories told how her father had brought home a collie puppy one day, and her mother had made him take it back. “I hated her for that!” Margaret would say with delight at her own naughtiness. As soon as she had her own house, she was never without a dog again. 

After her husband died, we went to church together now and then, when she could no longer drive. It was good to go home to the church and sit in the pews with old friends. Sometimes it was sad to look around and see the congregation diminishing, favorite faces gone forever. 

At the funeral, I sang Jerusalem, that paean to British faith and spirit. It was outside, without the organ, so I stood on the steps leading down into the little brick-pathed columbarium, facing the small cluster of people, my eyes on the trees above them so I didn’t have to see their reactions. It’s difficult to sing at funerals at the best of times, but singing for someone you care about is hard. I made it almost to the end before my voice caught on the last four words. In that split second I saw the priest’s eyes turn to me in alarm, before I gathered myself to finish. 

As I drove home I took a wandering back roads route, revisiting the countryside where I grew up, past the farms of old school friends’ families, past the little waysides I remembered. Here was where my friend and I stopped on our bikes one hot day, here’s where my best friend’s grandparents lived, here’s where the school bus stopped when I came home with her. There’s the stone farmhouse I used to dream of owning. The sky was filled with storm clouds and sunshine.

As I rambled around the narrow back roads a flash of white caught my eye. There was a bald eagle perched on a dead tree, huge and proud. Her mate was circling overhead, perhaps enjoying the currents from the storms. I thought of Margaret’s love of nature, and her oft-repeated story of her father’s Sunday lectures on trees, And I remembered the words of the hymn.

Bring me my bow of burning gold,

Bring me my arrows of desire.

Bring me my spear. O, clouds unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease in mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,

‘Til we have built Jerusalem 

in England’s green and pleasant land.

I thought of Margaret’s stories. The love, the terror, the rebuilding, the long walks. The angers and the joys, the frustrations and the consolations. I knew so many of the high and the low points, because she had built the stories for me, unintentionally ensuring I remembered through their repetition. 

She often told me how fortunate she was to still live on her own in a pleasant place surrounded by paths, a lake, trees, and gardens where she walked daily. Her death came suddenly, without lingering, at a healthy old age. It is the best any of us can hope for. And, then I remembered the last line of my favorite Willa Cather story, and a wave of peace washed over me.  

Margaret’s life seemed to me complete and beautiful.

Read the Beginning of J.F. Riordan’s new novel, *A Small Earnest Question*

Book Four in the Award-winning North of the Tension Line series

The telephone rang in the sleek, city office of Victor Eldridge. As he reached to answer the pain came again with a deep, resounding blow that made it difficult to breathe. He braced his hands against his desk, waiting for it to pass as it always did. The ringing phone, mixed in the wake of his agony, was almost beyond bearing.

Victor Eldridge was not a religious man, but what he experienced now was as much of a prayer as he would ever utter. Please, let this be the end of it. Please let the pain stop.

He did not care how.

The ringing and the pain faded at the same moment, and it seemed as if the room echoed with both. He stayed frozen in position, his breathing shallow.

He straightened slowly and leaned back in his chair. There. His breath became deeper and he could feel his heartbeat slowing to its normal pace. His reason returning from the chaos of suffering, he began to think. He had much to do but very little time. The pain was gone. For now. But he knew it would come again.

And again.

***

keep reading on Kindle.

Insomnia


I have a lot on my mind: an unfinished and recalcitrant book, the usual tribulations of book sales—or lack thereof—a family reunion that includes children, grandchildren, five dogs, and one bathroom at our lake cottage, and a baby shower focused on the joy of the occasion, but whose logistics are complex. In case anyone doubts the (self-imposed) complexities of my life, I have three big dogs whose various health needs have led me to commit to giving them homemade dog food, and the coming family visits suggest that preparing  8 days of dog food in advance might be advisable. There’s a full day’s work, including the scramble to find affordable meat for them. It’s a nuisance, but the dogs are healthy, vital, and unappreciative.

I’m not sleeping well.

I defy myself in my wakefulness: I will not do laundry in the middle of the night.

I just poured myself a bourbon at 2 am, which is in violation of my own protocol, but an emergency method of acquiring some sleep before a day with many tasks.

Even in the depths of the night, the sky here is brighter than the trees, and the abstract pattern of their leaves against the pale night surrounds and engulfs the house. I lie on the couch in our library and am consoled by the sky. The dogs breathe; Pete, fast and shallow as if he is racing; Moses, deep and sonorant.. Both follow me in my restless wanderings through the house, and we share our love and our wakefulness. Auggie, in his youth, sleeps through.

I found Pete around midnight, curled up in an odd place on the kitchen floor. Yesterday morning I found him lying among the piles (no, mountains: two houses, visitors, bed linens, beach towels, clothing) of sorted laundry, far from his sleeping family. I wonder whether he seeks solitude, or whether he is actually lost: befuddled by deafness and blindness.

Pete has much joy in life. He eats with gusto, he runs and romps. He protects his interests. He polices his younger brothers. But he is an old dog, and his quiet demeanor means he is easily pushed aside by the exigencies of the moment, and each day I resolve to spend time with Pete that is only his. Each day I fall short.

Whose kid is playing booming bass on his car stereo at 3 am on our sleepy rural road?

I get up to start a load of laundry.

I am awake because my dreams were of my father’s death: explicit; agonizing. I rose from our bed and went to where my stirrings would not disturb my hardworking husband. Moses smells my tears and licks my face. I tell myself that my troubles are small. The world is filled with tragedies and pain, and my life is easy, rich, and full. But still, it is an act of will to find the right messaging for my troubled mind. I have a good life, it’s true. But even so, grief holds hard on a heavy heart.

Robert’s Rules Featured on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Chapter A Day

Robert’s Rules is Book Three in J.F.Riordan’s North of the Tension Line Series, and is the recent winner of a Gold Medal from the Independent Publisher’s Book Awards. It is this month’s selection for Wisconsin Public Radio’s popular Chapter a Day program.

You can tune in to WPR every day to hear one of twenty episodes at 12:30 pm and 11:00 pm. It’s also available for download on their site. 

It is beautifully read by one of WPR’s regular readers, Jim Fleming. Check it out!

ABOUT THE SERIES:

Wisconsin author J.F. Riordan has been called “a latter-day Jane Austen”. Her mesmerizing literary fiction makes the Great Lakes region one of the characters in this continuing series. The North of the Tension Linebooks (North of the Tension Line; The Audacity of Goats; and Robert’s Rules) represent a sensibility that is distinctively Midwestern, even though the small town politics and gossip will be universally familiar. Riordan celebrates the well-lived life of the ordinary man and woman with meticulously drawn characters and intriguing plots that magnify the beauty and mystery lingering near the surface of everyday life. Book Four in the series, A Small Earnest Question, is due out in 2020

J.F. Riordan’s Mesmerizing ‘Robert’s Rules’

Told in a beautifully crafted literary style, Robert’s Rules is an engaging story filled with deep insights about people and their environment. In the process, Riordan reveals the eccentric and oftentimes unexpected realities behind the bucolic images of modern small-town life.”

The Shepherd Express

The Kindness of Strangers: NYC Version

I was in New York for a book convention, and was heading home in a very good mood. My traveling companion and I have known one another for over thirty years. We met in the theater. She always comes with me to these things and acts as my carnival barker to attract people to my booth. She’s extremely good at this.

Although slightly hungover, we were reminiscing and singing old tunes on the ride to the airport. She got out at a different terminal, and for the remainder of the trip, the cab driver and I had a pleasant few minutes talking about friendship. He was a nice guy, and I tipped him well. We parted with a handshake. This is a lesson: be nice to people, and they’ll be nice to you. Also, get a receipt.

I was walking into the terminal when I reached into my pocket for my boarding pass, which was on my phone. My phone wasn’t in my pocket. It wasn’t in my handbag. It wasn’t in my backpack.

It was in the cab.

You know that sickening feeling when you’ve lost something of value. But we all have a particular and dangerous dependency on our phones that made this loss particularly dire. How would I call my husband to say I might be late? Or the dog sitter whose number I didn’t know by heart? Does directory assistance even exist anymore? I couldn’t reach my friend, only a short way away in the next terminal. Everything we need is on our phones: our TSA numbers, our insurance agent’s phone, and the most intimate details of our lives. Our wallets barely matter. Did I mention it was a brand new phone?

I checked my luggage, got a new paper boarding pass, and stood thinking about what to do. If there were any pay phones, who would I call? If I could only call the cab driver…

An airline employee named Phil was directing the lines, and when I told him my dilemma he handed me his phone. I wanted to call the cab company. “No. Call yourself,” he told me. “The driver will hear it ringing, and at least know it’s there.”

So I called myself, several times, and then went back out to the drop off, in hope that the cab might be able to come around again. But after a few minutes of waiting, the unlikeliness of this prospect sank in. I went back in to Phil, to ask, this time, if I could call the cab company. I had the receipt, and the cab number. “You’ll be on hold forever,” he told me. But I had to try. So Phil again handed me his phone while he continued his work with other passengers.

Then, as I waited on hold, a miracle happened: my own phone number popped up. I handed the phone to Phil to answer. It was the cab driver. He had pulled off and was in the LaGuardia taxi waiting area. He couldn’t just sit there, the line was moving, and he’d soon be pushed out. I needed to come immediately to get my phone. He told me to hurry. Talking fast, Phil explained that the cab area was off the airport premises, and down the highway. It was a distance, I couldn’t walk there, and I would really have to hurry.

I grabbed a cab as it was dropping off and told the driver the problem. Could he help me? We broke the rules about passenger pick-ups, and sped off. I asked him to call my phone. Soon, we were out on the highway, driving fast, away from the airport and my checked luggage, as the two drivers argued volubly about how to get to the right place

It had been maybe five minutes and I was beginning to worry when we headed up an exit ramp dodging and weaving slower traffic as if we were in a chase scene, all while the drivers continued arguing. The current driver, an African with a beautiful accent and a warm, deep voice, had a kind of other-worldly authority. The other, my kindly Afghani friend, had an almost hysterical sense of urgency. “No, No No!” I heard him screaming into the phone. “That’s not the right place! NO!”

“Listen,” said the African driver calmly as he whipped around a tiny Fiat that was driving too slowly and cut in front of it. “You have to stop talking and listen to me.”

The Fiat driver, a cute elderly lady with wild, curly hair, flipped us off.

We squeezed past a Hyundai with inches to spare, and squealed around the corner before the light changed.

The drivers, having apparently reached some kind of concord, hung up. I knew we were close, but I hadn’t understood what they were talking about. It felt like a flashback to my younger days, traveling in the Soviet Union with some Greek friends, where everyone was speaking English, but in accents I couldn’t understand. “The gas station,” my driver said, “is where the taxis get their gas. I know where it is.” But if taxi number one was in line with the cab, I wondered, how was he at a gas station.  It didn’t make sense, but at this point, it was out of my hands.

As we pulled up to the gas station, my hopes fell. There was no cab visible. “He’s not here,” I said. “No,” said the driver. “I don’t see him.”

And then, at the same moment, we both saw a slight, middle-aged man standing in the gas station parking lot, jumping up and down, and waving his arms. It was our guy. He had left his cab in the line, somehow scaled a wire fence, and was waiting in the parking lot, waving my phone in his hands.  He expressed his joy as freely as his frustration. I offered him a large reward, trying to put it into his hands, but he wouldn’t take it. I hugged him and kissed him on the cheek instead.

And then in a matter of seconds I was in the other cab again, racing back to the airport in a heady state of triumph. I really can’t overstate my ebullience. I was as proud of my resourcefulness in pulling this off as if I had led the troops to victory. I thanked my second cab driver profusely, and gave him a big tip. His driving had been both exciting and essential.

The rest of the trip was uneventful: even the usual irritation of the TSA experience felt soothing in its routine. It was too early in the morning to drink—although I was tempted—so I consoled myself with a latte and some $20 airport avocado toast. Still, I was reminded once again of the importance of kindness. One way or another, it will always come back to you.

It was a good day.

 

 

 

 

 

A Lovely Letter from a Fan

I discovered your first Door County book at the beginning of the summer. I purchased it on my kindle and began reading eagerly. Then of course I had to read the second. I love Door county and Washington island so I was able to picture it in my mind as I read. We just returned from Door county last night. We spent 5 days camping on the island. I downloaded your book of essays to read while I was there, since I hadn’t purchased the third book in the series yet for my kindle.

I am glad I waited, because I was able to buy an autographed copy of “Robert’s Rules” and read it while I was there. The little book store on the island is lovely. I ate at the Albatross while looking at “Fiona’s house.”

My husband and I rode his motorcycle all over the island discussing and dreaming of purchasing property for sale there. On previous trips we had just went to the island as a day trip. This time we stayed.

I love Door county but now I am even more in love with Washington Island. Crossing over on the ferry yesterday and stopping for breakfast at the Viking in Ellison Bay felt jarring. Even that area felt like a harsh return to reality. The island is just this peaceful lovely sanctuary. I will dream about it this week while I adjust to a 20 degree temperature change. It seems that every time we come home from Door county we come home to an excessive heat advisory. Maybe God is telling me something.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know how much I have enjoyed your books and I am anxiously waiting for the next one

Letter from a Reader

Hello Ms. Riordan,
I just finished reading Robert’s Rules, and so have read all 4 of your books. I just wanted to thank you for your stories, and for conveying your love of Door County and the Island so beautifully! I live just south of the Wisconsin border, and have been traveling to Door County since I was expecting my oldest child. He’s now 34. Door County is my favorite place on Earth. When people ask me why I like it so much, I describe all my favorite places, but I can never really capture why it means so much to me.
But you did. In telling your stories, you capture the beauty and the simplicity of local life, and how that life is cherished by the people who call Door County home.
I hope to spend more and more time there, especially when I retire. I’ve passed on my love for the area to my sister, and now she and my brother-in-law just purchased land on the Island, with the hopes of building their little piece of heaven.
I have never written to an author before, but no other author has focused on a place that means so much to me, and managed to capture exactly how I feel about it.
Thank you for your writings! I’m looking forward to A Small Earnest Question!
With kindest regards,
Monika

Long Goodbye

This essay is excerpted from my new book, Reflections on a Life in Exile, due out May 1, 2019.  It is the story of Reggie, our beloved golden retriever.

I am lying in bed with 170 pounds of dog: one big, one medium. I do love them both. But the big one, the one who lives inside my soul; he is dying.

Tonight we did the last thing: a rescue protocol of chemotherapy used only as a last resort. The vet said there was a fifty-fifty chance that it would give him a few more weeks. But no chance that it would save him.

I listen to his breath. The blissful thing is that he doesn’t know. Among all the deficits and injustices and hard things of dog life, the one great blessing is not to know your mortality. So to him, a hard day is just a hard moment, maybe not an oppressive forever.

Golden retrievers are gentle creatures. They are born sweet. Their docility is not a lack of character, though, as Reggie has demonstrated. He is an artist. His summer days at the lake are not for lounging. They are for a determined and relentless search for the perfect shape, the perfect addition to his sculpture. Tail high and wagging, he scours the floor of the lake with his feet, treading back and forth in a deliberate grid, fully engrossed in his life’s work. When he finds what he needs, he pushes it into place with his feet, and dives down to retrieve it, emerging triumphant to the shore with a rock the size of maybe half a soccer ball. He places it on the lawn in his own pattern, discernible only to him. Every morning my husband picks up the rocks—including those stolen from the neighbor’s shoreline—and throws them back. But by the end of the day a new work of art—a kind of Reggie Stonehenge—has reappeared.

Struggling to straddle the good days and bad days, to balance his happiness and his pain is my job; watching the progression of the evil cancer, and desperately trying to weigh my needs against his. Trying not to think of my deepest wish—to have him forever—and only of his—not to suffer. That’s all. Just no suffering. No nights in the scary hospital, only nights at home with his people who love him. He doesn’t understand if we abandon him as we did for the surgery on his torn knee. He trembled uncontrollably when we returned to that place for a routine thing.

Among the blessings is the kindness of those who care for him. His vet who returned to the exam room while we waited for blood tests with a flowered quilt to lay on the floor for Reggie and for me; the lab tech who smuggles him extra treats; the oncologist who wraps her arms around him and kisses his face before she begins her work.

We cuddle. I let him lie on the white couch. I rub his tummy, he puts his head on my shoulder and we comfort one another, as we do. We feed him rotisserie chicken and imported sausage because he will eat it while healthier things go untouched. And who cares. It nourishes him, and he will eat it. It makes him happy. That’s all.

This big dog, my puppy dog, at seven weeks used to put his whole self into my arms when he came back inside from his outdoor responsibilities. I would hold his small body in my arms. He slept on my pillow so I could carry him outside when he stirred. As he grew, he still remembered how to express love, and would lay his massive paws on my shoulders as I knelt next to him, his head towering over mine, and he would lay his enormous chin on my shoulders. I always held tight; but sometimes distractedly; sometimes hurriedly; sometimes without the same level and intensity of love he had to give me. I had other thoughts. But he always thought about loving me first.

The loss of this love, not human, but canine, may not seem important to everyone. But to me it is the intimate, personal and once in my life love of this soul; entrusted to me as a gift I did not deserve or fully appreciate. With all due humility about myself, I wonder if anyone could deserve this trust, this love, this kindness, this full and open heart. Anyone other than another soul like his.

I owe him the most reverent, beloved, happy and respectful days I can offer him. In his innocence he is both my king and conscience. He is better than me. And he was born to break my heart.

 

They Sing

Every morning in the dark, my prayer comes in silence. Or rather, it comes in my silence amid the conversations of others: of the hundreds—possibly thousands of geese calling at sunrise; the turkeys having another of their frequent family squabbles; the robins in their distinctive sweet monotony; the sparrows and the chickadees, each with their own language of singing; the owls calling their last sleepy good nights; and the raccoon silently ambling across the open lawn and slowly up the tree trunk to bed.

The soft sleeping breath of dog one; the impatiently waiting breath of dog two; and the intense watchfulness of the puppy who sits at the window to see, hear, and smell the lives of others, these are the sounds of my prayer. This morning noise is the sound of life, of the world.

The traffic sounds that rise from the valley will come soon, too, but not yet. For now there are just these other lives among us, busily, and with unknown degrees of self-awareness, going about the hard work of living. If they worry—and I think the garter snake who encountered us yesterday in the orchard was damned worried—they don’t sit around and wallow in it. They don’t have time for self pity. They have to eat, and get where they have to be, and find a mate, and feed their young, and elude homicidal neighbors. Every decision they make is life or death. It’s a lot. It is, frankly, more than I have to worry about, and probably more important. But they start each morning by raising their voices.

I don’t know that it’s cheer. Who can say? But it is life affirming. It’s a statement of presence, of vitality, perhaps of territory, perhaps of love.
Life is hard, and may be over before the sun sets.
But still, they sing.

(But still they sing.)

Blurred Lines

Last night, just after dark on Ash Wednesday, I took the dogs out for a little ramble. The first thing I heard was a coyote in the distance, and then, later than usual, church bells, signaling the seven o’clock service for the Lutherans. Each, in its way, calling the community to assemble. It was a curious juxtaposition: the two sounds, one of civilization, one of the wild, both of God.

We walked in the dark, the dogs and I. Old man Pete and I walked gingerly, careful not to fall on the ice. Puppy Auggie raced and slipped, and slipped again, joyous and without care. Moses loped ahead, making sure all was secure. It was warmer than it had been, but the wind cut, and the coyote made us watchful and tense. Pete paused to point into the dark ravine. We all stopped to look, and then moved on.

With my hood up, I could hear strange sounds behind me. With my hood off, I could hear the unfamiliar crunch of my new boots. The sky was clearing, and a few stars shone. We walked only a little way before returning to the warmth of the house to sit by the fire.

One way or another, we were not alone.