We’ll hazard a guess that, at least once in your life, you’ve fantasized about packing up your life and moving to (what feels like) a different world—an idyllic small town, a bustling metropolis, a remote windswept isle… In J. F. Riordan’s sparkling North of the Tension line series, a writer does just that, moving from Chicago to a sparsely populated island in Door County, Wisconsin. Her ensuing small-town adventures are presented with enormous heart throughout this delightful series. Today in the Bluestocking Salon, Bas Bleu sat down (virtually, no masks required!) with novelist J. F. Riordan to learn more about why she chose Door County as her setting, how opera helped shape her novelist’s voice, and what effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on her writing. Continue reading →
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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
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.)
I was watching a small drama this morning at dawn. The polar vortex has moved on, the -22 temperatures have risen more than forty degrees, and the vicious winds, creating a wind chill factor of 40 or 50 below zero, have died. I have been worried about the wild animals, knowing that this weather kills many birds, and probably mammals, too. I have not seen a single squirrel in a week, and this is highly irregular. The turkeys, normally restless and predictable in their daily patterns, have not followed their usual path, but stayed beneath the trees where they roost, puffed into enormous balls of feather, clustered together like giant mushrooms.
I put out seed, and fruit, and all kinds of nuts, suet balls with nuts and meal worms, and big chunks of suet in fat strips from the butcher, which I have to shoo the dogs from. The fat has drawn crows, whom I rarely see up close, and that makes me happy. We have springs on our property so we don’t have to worry about a water supply, but still, this is a hard season for creatures. Many times over the past week I thought of the animals, curled up in balls trying to keep warm in their trees or burrows, and I felt helpless pity.
This morning, though, as I was watching the sunrise, I noticed a black mass against the side of tree deep in the woods. Suspicious, I watched until I saw it move. It was a raccoon, returning home from its nighttime ramble. And then I saw a second raccoon, climbing up the same trunk in a congenial fashion. So this is how they survive the cold. I was enchanted. A pair! There will be babies!
As I watched their clumsy, though expert climb, I was cheered by the thought of their snuggling together in the winter weather. And then I peered more closely. Not two. Three raccoons. Clearly joining forces to keep one another warm. Were they siblings? In this woods, probably. They were all fat, but not as big as some I’ve seen, possibly yearlings. They each perched on a separate branch, far more precariously than any turkey. Turkeys, after all, can fly. And although there was one spectacular slip and fall, the raccoons all managed to stay on the tree without falling fifty feet to the ground.
I wonder whether this arrangement is long-term or merely expedient, but the sight of this little pack, or family, or club, cheered me and distracted me. I watched, my coffee growing cold, as they settled in uncomfortable-looking poses on their separate too-small branches, until they each made their way back to the trunk where they had their nest, and disappeared, presumably until night falls again, when they can resume their sociable adventurings.
All is well.