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.

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 2.50.57 PM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Idle wishes

IMG_6842

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.

And now a little something from Book Three, Robert’s Rules.

Book Three of the North of the Tension Line Series is now with the publisher, being made beautiful for publication in the Spring.

In response to some enquiries, here is a brief excerpt.

****

After breakfast, Pali, who had the day off, came into the kitchen and kissed his wife on the neck.

“Let’s talk,” he said.

“What about?” she asked, envisioning her mental list of the many things she had to do.

“Let’s just sit down together.”

With an inner sigh, Nika followed him into the next room. She never got as much done when he was home as when he was away. She sat in her favorite chair and looked at him with some impatience.

Pali looked down as he began to talk. “I think it’s time we thought about leaving the Island. I’ve been thinking that it might be a good thing for Ben.”

Her impatience forgotten, she focused all her attention on him as if her life depended on it. She forced herself to sound calm. “But we promised ourselves we’d never do that again. We love it here. It’s our home.”

“Nika, we need to think about this. We need to prepare Ben for his life. He’s growing up, and I can’t say I’m liking the way things are going. He can’t hide away here on the Island forever. There’s no future for him here—“.

Nika started to interrupt, but Pali kept talking “—or if there is, it’s a future he can only choose when he knows what else is out there. Think about his life here. He needs to learn about the world. Ben has no experience with the worst of human character. We can’t just throw him to the winds and expect him to fly.”

“But we did. We left and found our way. We were ok.” Her voice was low.

Pali shook his head. “It’s such a different world now. This culture. The lack of values. The pace. Ben won’t be able to keep up if we don’t help him to acclimate. And isn’t it better for him to encounter these things while we’re there to guide him and protect him?”

Nika was silent. Pali could see the tears welling up.

“We don’t have to decide now. We can think about it.” He got up and went over to her, kneeling next to her chair and taking her hands in his. “It’s our decision, Nika. Ours together. But I’m going to start looking. If something comes along, I won’t say yes if you don’t want me to. Just think about it, ok?”

She sat silent, afraid to speak, her heart and mind in a turmoil. She hated this. When they returned to the Island they had sworn they would never move away again. And now, here he was, threatening to rip her away from everything that mattered.

“Well,” she corrected herself silently, “not everything.”

She felt a flash of her old passion for this man who had been her other self for so long. She had always loved him, from the first day she saw him. He was the best man she had ever known. And, when she looked into her heart, she knew, as much as she fought against admitting it, that he was right.

“Just think about it,” he said again.

She nodded.

****

 

An Evening with Alexander McCall Smith

I had the pleasure of introducing Alexander McCall Smith on Thursday night at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. He was here to promote  his new book, The House of Unexpected Sisters. You can buy it here.

It can always be a bit dicey meeting someone you admire, because you’re never sure whether he will live up to your expectations. In this case, however, the author was exactly as his books reveal him to be: erudite, kind, funny, and charming. I hung back at the end of the signing in order to present him with one of my books (a presumption I had to work myself up to) and was able to observe his patience and warmth with every single one of the three hundred-some people who waited in line for his autograph.

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 7.12.54 AMIt is difficult–if not impossible–to say anything original about a man so well-known, and, indeed, a Commander of the British Empire, but my attempt follows:

We live in troubled times. Although in the West we have lives of comfort and ease beyond the dreams of any other era of humanity, we wake, I believe, most days, with the sense that something has gone deeply wrong.

And then we realize that our Iphones are safe in the next room.

Modern life, in its material richness, is often plagued by anxiety. And when we have read the dire stories in the news, witnessed the crudeness and vulgarity of mainstream culture, and exhausted our capacity for cruelty and vituperation on Twitter, our minds and souls are in desperate need of an escape. If we have any sense at all, we turn to books as our refuge.

Alexander McCall Smith is the master of escapist literature. I use that term with deep admiration. It requires firm principles, deep courage, and a steadfast heart to look around and find joy and things to laugh about. Perhaps it also requires a bit of desperation.

His books, however charming, express both a deeply held moral philosophy and biting social satire. And whether it’s Isabel Dalhousie in her beautiful house in Edinburgh, Mma Ramatswe in Botswana, or seven year old Bertie reluctantly practicing yoga at 44 Scotland Street, his protagonists have a firm determination to do what’s right: to be honest, to express and appreciate beauty, to find meaning, and most particularly, to be kind.

The humor can be subtle or riotous, but the beauty, and warmth, and rich value of everyday people living everyday lives of meaning and virtue is at the core of every book. And today—indeed, in any era—that is a powerful and important thing.

Escapist literature is a banner of hope in a dark world. And, as Mma Ramotswe says: “… it is possible to change the world, if one is determined enough, and if one sees with sufficient clarity just what has to be changed.”

Our guest, tonight, is an extraordinarily prolific novelist and story writer, over the course of many years. He is the author of multiple series—including my favorite, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, which features the hapless Herr Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Iglefeld—and along with this new addition to his Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, and to the 44 Scotland Street Series, has another new children’s book about to be published in Britain. He is the recipient of many honors, and a Commander of the British Empire.

The truth is, he needs no introduction to any of you, but I really wanted to meet him.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Alexander McCall Smith.

 

The King is Dead. Long Live the King.

Well, it’s happened. Book Three, Robert’s Rules (Beaufort Books, Spring 2018), is finished, and off to the publisher. I say that in passive voice, as if it miraculously wrote itself. Not so. Over the course of the past year, and most particularly of the past six months, I have neglected friends, family, and dogs, and reduced my life to work, writing, and basic human survival. A trail of entropy lies behind me.

IMG_5146So, you ask: Now what will you do? Revel in the freedom? Drink champagne, or possibly bourbon? Walk the dogs? Go to Disney World?

Well, some of the above, except for the Disney part. But mostly more mundane things like do laundry, overthrow the reigning chaos in my office, and remind my family and friends that I still love them (the dogs, being dogs, still knew that). For both my dear readers, I will also go back to writing my blog.

On the other hand, I have, unintentionally, but apparently irresistibly (again that misleading sense of the passive), begun work on Book Four, A Small Earnest Question.

Life has its cycles.

 

Adding to the Menagerie

We were walking the dogs the other night, and we saw something ahead of us in the road. The sun was going down, and it was shining in our eyes. “What is that?” my husband asked. “Is it an animal?”

He held the dogs, while I went up to see. It was a tiny black kitten, sitting in the middle of the road. At first, I thought its eyes were not yet open, but as I peered into its face I had the terrifying thought that perhaps it had no eyes at all.

I picked it up reluctantly, and cuddled it against my sweatshirt, while my husband took the dogs and continued on the walk, figuring that their feelings toward the kitten might not be especially altruistic. The kitten and I went home.

I dabbed warm water on his eyes with a paper towel, and wiped away the crust that was keeping them shut. He had been completely blinded, but now his eyes were open.

I found some powdered milk in the pantry, and made some warm milk with brown sugar, and he lapped it up, trying, as Auggie does, to put his feet into it. 

Out in the country at our cottage, the township had no contract with the local humane society, so the Sheriff’s department contacted an emergency number, and somebody from the humane society called me back. They wouldn’t pick up, so we would have to bring him in.

By now he was getting lively, and didn’t want to be held, but I was afraid he would disappear under the porch or a bush and we wouldn’t find him again. When the dogs arrived the kitten stood on my shoulder and hissed and spit. Moses just looked puzzled. Pete and Auggie didn’t even notice him.

We drove him to the humane society, where nice people took him in, assured us that he wasn’t seriously ill, and made us sign a statement that he didn’t belong to us. “What’s his name?” asked the woman.

“Doskar,” I said. “Felix,” said my husband.

We missed the sunset, which had been the whole reason we had gone to the cottage, but we didn’t really mind. That kitten had a lucky, lucky day. I doubt he would have survived a night blind, in the woods, with raccoons and foxes and coyotes, swamps to get stuck in, water to fall into.  I can’t help worrying about what happened to his littermates.

Every time we left the house we found ourselves looking for kittens in the road. Hope they are safe somewhere, and warm.

 

He’s all right

After multiple treatments, Moses still smelled like skunk around his eyes and muzzle. I couldn’t put any of the harsher treatments near his eyes, so we went with the old-fashioned method of tomato paste.

Moses made it quite clear that this was beneath his dignity, but after he had wiped his face on Pete and splattered tomato paste all over Auggie, he contented himself with licking off some of the residue. He got several very big pieces of chicken for his patience. And he actually smells better too.

Meanwhile, I think we have his Halloween costume in the bag.

Sith warrior, anyone?

QUICK NOTE: If you would like to read my first novels in preparation for the release of the third in the series, Robert’s Rules, next spring, they are both on sale for $1.99 each on Kindle this month.

Skunked

FullSizeRender 7

So at 4:56 pm yesterday, four minutes before my you-can-stop-working-now alarm went off, I was done. My husband was away, I had worked all day, and I was a little stir crazy. So were the dogs.

I combed my hair, put on some lipstick, and decided to go to the local farmers’ market to see if there was anything tempting. The dogs had already had their big walk of the day, but it was cool and cloudy, so they could come along and sit in the car if I stopped. That way they wouldn’t sulk at being left behind.

We all piled into the car, but when we got there, everybody had already gone. I needed to see the sky, so we went for a little drive. After some random driving around I ended up at the grocery store. Not as good as the farmer’s market, but I’m always happy with a fresh rotisserie chicken.

As I returned to the car ten minutes later, I opened the hatch to put the groceries in the trunk. Moses was leaning his face on the backseat looking soulfully at me. “Oh, you big baby,” I said. “You are such a good dog. I know what you want.” He sighed, his eyes never leaving my face. “Ok. Just one little spin around the woods. Would you like that?”

So we went to the woods. I in my new jeans and new suede espadrilles (I know) and dogs in their usual attire. The woods have trails that make successive circles with intersecting paths. One long route around would make everyone happy.

As I walked I was very pleased with myself for having made this decision. I had needed this as much as the dogs, but they especially deserved something extra nice for having been so patient all day. The sun had come out for a bit, and it was a beautiful night.

Why is it that when I get all sentimental and self-congratulatory something bad always happens?

Pete is always the pack instigator. He’s the one who ran off the path to sniff at something interesting. Moses immediately followed, and Auggie galloped after them with his adolescent enthusiasm. At first I thought it was a routine disgusting thing, and then I thought it was a squirrel because I could see the white tail flashing. It was not a squirrel. Squirrels do not have white tails.

Thank God, Auggie listened to me and did not get close. Pete, too, managed to get away. Who knows how.  But Moses, who is particularly fond of squirrels in a way that squirrels don’t quite appreciate, got a full frontal spray of skunk. I think he must have gotten a mouthful of it. I was so concerned about getting them away from there that I barely attended to his misery, which was profound. But by the time we ran back to the car he seemed better.

Let me tell you that skunk smells much, much, much, much, much, much worse than you think. My dogs have had minor skunk encounters, so I had been lured into thinking that these situations are not all that bad. I was wrong. It was a very long five minute drive home.

Then began the fun part.

Today we did a re-treatment with the anti-skunk enzyme, which is pretty good, except for the fact that you can’t just spray it on a dog’s face, where the worst smell is. Then we will wash Moses again. And probably again. And we will wash all the towels and things with the enzyme too. If that doesn’t work, the towels will have to go.

Possibly we will repeat the process. I may also buy some tomato juice for his face. Maybe tomato paste.

I suppose I should be grateful that I only have one skunky dog, not three.

Did I mention my car? And the suede espadrilles?

I’m not sure this counts as procrastination for the novel, but the results are the same.

UPDATE:

And then I noticed the lump on Moses’s leg. Skunk Bite. Vet visit. Rabies booster. Antibiotics. Rotisserie chicken dinner for Moses. Wine for me. Possibly bourbon.