Tales of Two Lives Each: Rebecca Mead and Nell Stevens

A certain kind of book these days combines literary history and memoir, and investigates the importance of renowned novels from the past to readers today. Rebecca Mead did this in 2014 with “My Life in Middlemarch,” which intersperses her personal story with biographical details about George Eliot, and provides an enriching look at “Middlemarch.” Mead has read “Middlemarch” countless times over the years, finding treasures anew each time. I’ve read it just twice – and loved reading Mead’s book to help me make even more of it.

Mead, born in England, recently wrote in The New Yorker (“The Return of the Native”) that after decades in this country and becoming a citizen, she would return to the UK – to London. She writes about what America has meant to her since she came here, first as a graduate student, then a journalist, and describes the decision as “wrenching.” Her life reminds me of many English novel heroines, especially the ones who long to write – beginnings in a provincial town, hard-working student, Oxford, The New Yorker – an enviable trajectory fueled by love of books.

I’m a Rebecca Mead fan – always glad to see her byline. This article movingly sums up the last two decades – 9/11, Mead’s adventurous career, marriage and motherhood, the joy of Obama’s election and the despair of the more recent one – and I could feel her apprehensive excitement about the move to London (a friend, when I forwarded the article, said “I wish I also had a British citizenship.”) I’m happy for Mead – she will give her son the experience of a different culture and remove the ocean that’s separated her from her mother for so many years. And I’m eager for her to write about London as a local.

She left me a departing gift – a review of Nell Stevens’s “The Victorian and the Romantic: A Memoir, A Love Story, and Friendship Across Time.” It’s a book I might have missed about Elizabeth Gaskell, the 19th C novelist best known simply as Mrs. Gaskell, a favorite of mine.

Stevens’s book combines a time in her own life with that of a little-known part of Gaskell’s life (an unrequited but intense romance). Mead describes the result best: “…a gentle satire on the ways of academia… coupled with a painfully credible account of late-twenties love, freighted with all its unanswerable questions about the future.”

When I was an English major back in the days of text only (the novel itself contained all that needed knowing), to read about an author’s life was somehow illicit. Virginia Woolf wrote that “The cheapness of writing paper is, of course, the reason why women have succeeded as writers before they have succeeded in other professions,” and now I feel a frisson of excitement at peeking into the lives, houses and companions surrounding those women authors who penned such long-lasting books.

And it’s a great pleasure to have tales of those lives told alongside the contemporary lives of two masterful writers!

 

November Thoughts

It’s Election Day – but you know that and you will vote or already have – now we just cross our fingers and hope that things will change for the better. Writing about the good, drawing pictures about the colorful can seem trivial in the face of political gloom. But the wordsmith told me that the last post, with all the fall imagery, helped to “ease her mind” – so I’ll take that to heart and just keep going.

I associate November – darkening days, blustery weather, our turning inward – with drawing some series in the early mornings. Thinking I like book suggestions this time of year (as I stockpile my favorite gift-giving solution), I’m torn between wanting to revisit books I’ve read (since last I wrote about books), and wanting to make little watercolors to keep me looking around.

So I begin with the last of the autumn color on my morning walk – always such a lovely walk – a privilege – even on this worried morning!

 

Pumpkin Time

We returned to a splendid and sunny October. Leaves turned gold and red and orange as they drifted on the wind, skittered along sidewalks and roads, and came to rest in crunchy heaps. Days shorten, but orange twinkle lights and illuminated pumpkin lanterns glow in dark of evening.

Real pumpkins appear everywhere! They decorate front porches and steps and perch on fenceposts. Hundreds of pumpkins, destined to be jack-o’-lanterns, created an enormous tilted mountain (diminished daily), outside the grocery store – every possible size and shape of orange pumpkin and also an oddball, Halloween-y variety, gnarly with dark green lumps. At Bloedel Reserve, a whole host of elaborately shaped squashes and gourds sit on tree branches and cluster at tree bases.

And at our house – a bounty of pumpkins and squash from those few little plants! After waiting for the stems to turn brown and leaves to collapse, I harvested, and now sugar snap pumpkins (to stretch the pie season) and delicata squash (for the Thanksgiving table) line up on a slatted bench in our unheated garage.

I exchanged squash for tart apples, from the tree of a gardener I met on my walk, left some on friends’ doorsteps and car hoods, and gave pumpkins to my neighbors who also make pie.

And best of all – I sent pumpkins north and pumpkins south to three little people excited about the season! (I’ve heard we have in the family a fairy with glittery pink wings, Batman, and, this one I can’t wait to see, a drivable piece of heavy equipment.)

Enjoy the visiting goblins and superheroes tomorrow – and maybe some pumpkin pie!

Ireland Part Three – Last Days on the Dingle Peninsula

Dingle tips uphill from a busy marina on a large protected harbor with just a narrow opening to Dingle Bay. Once known for smugglers, Dingle is now popular with tourists for seafood, still-spoken Gaelic, and lively pubs with Irish music.

On our day there, we made wet trips (the storm hadn’t finished with us) to and from our guesthouse to see the town, to do laundry, and to purchase practical Irish wool hats (and a dear fisherman’s knit sweater for Baby brother). The Bob received a thorough bike shop repair of its front wheel. Cold wind and rain discouraged a walk to the harbor entrance, but Lady B and I visited the local aquarium. I’m always curious to see her take on things, what will puzzle her, what will engage – penguins being the highlight here.

The next morning we woke to glorious and welcome sunshine! The van dropped us at the beginning of Ventry Beach, with its miles of broad, hard-packed sand. The little people ran and ran, chasing each other, and pausing to examine beach discoveries. Narrow metal bridges lifted us out of a marshy area, and just before the trail headed inland, we stopped to eat our sandwiches.

After crossing the busy main road (road encounters are few but sometimes scary), we climbed uphill for the rest of the day, skirting the side of Eagle Mountain and approaching Slea Head. We negotiated a narrow, rutted path, climbing up and down and around rocks and over stiles (a tough go for the Bob’s handler). Contained by stone fences outlining a patchwork of fields on the hillside, sheep kept us company.

Sweet Baby walked and talked the whole seven miles, pretending to be teacher or nurse, helping and encouraging student or patient (her mom and me) over rocks, close to sheep, and informing us that the farmer had given permission for this trespass.

As we rose above the coast, the views grew ever more spectacular. We were so lucky with the sunshine, clouds hovered at the horizon, but the day stayed dry and clear, and we could see the beauty of this part of Ireland. Gorgeous vistas of sea, sky, and distant mountains spread out behind, beside, and in front of us, and, one after another, the largest Blasket Islands come dramatically into view.

The next day, our last on the Dingle Peninsula, we toured the Blasket Center – a stunning modern building with exhibits giving a glimpse of a vanished way of life. Long isolated from the rest of Ireland by wild ocean and distance, the culture and language of old Ireland survived on the Blaskets for far longer than on the mainland. In good weather you can visit the islands now, but residents had all left by the 1950s.

We walked another great beach in the afternoon and built a structure of stones to leave behind. We ended the day in the wrong pub for pickup, but another cozy, fire-warmed, inviting space.

I’m grateful for all these days and our intrepid family! You could spend much longer in this way, way west of Ireland where only the wild Atlantic lies beyond the shore. You could hope for the Camp to Inch route with clear skies, for Dingle days without rain and wind, and sail to the Blaskets on favorable seas. And for sure you could eat more delicious vegetable soup in pubs along the way (in any weather)!

Alaska And A Name Change?

For four days in May, while Mrs. Hughes celebrated her birthday with her sister and her best friend in New York City, we flew north to help Mr. Carson hold down the fort. (He doesn’t really need much help.) Chill from the north wind dampened the days of our visit, but didn’t dampen Alaska spring activities.

Pretty much nothing is cuter than a six-year old girl with braids and a ball cap playing her first baseball game (after just two practices). Standing by the dugout full of tiny teammates, I watched the swing and heard the satisfying smack when bat connected with ball pitched by her coach. Braids flying, she headed to first base, a little uncertainly at first, and then swiftly!

One day Lady B’s kindergarten teacher planned an excursion to the Municipal Greenhouse and nearby woods, and asked me to lead a little watercolor demonstration. She provided good materials (that can make all the difference with watercolor) – tiny palettes with six real watercolors, fine line pens and brushes with points. The students didn’t need much direction, and soon scattered around the greenhouse to draw – watercolor paper taped to clipboards – then came together in a circle to paint. The penline and watercolors produced amazed me by their careful observation of shape and color, each unique to its creator.

It struck me that the days of Lady Baby are behind us. That little girl in the orange t-shirt, worn over a red, long-sleeved thermal shirt with Tyrannosaurus rex on the front, seems far from anything with baby in the title. The girl formerly known as Lady Baby has school life and social relationships of her own now – two best friends, a girl with a mop of blonde curly hair, and a boy with dark curly hair and big glasses. Maybe now I call her Lady B, a more grown up title, because Baby Brother (who rapidly outgrows that moniker) calls her Bopal.

We spent great days with Baby Brother while Lady B was at school. Playgrounds please, but nothing is as popular as “owside” – the back yard with swing and slide and balls to kick – or a slow amble down the sidewalk out front.

He loves books – specially ones with pictures of “boom boom crash” providers, particularly enormous bulldozers and crane trucks. Lady B reads to him, revisiting all the favorites (dinosaurs). He laughs with the same joy and relief at the resolution in “Knufflebunny” that I remember from her.

When we first arrived I marveled at his mom’s understanding of his language, but as the days passed I began to get it better. He repeats everything said to him – so the structure and intonation becomes more clear, and you realize how much he can communicate, if only his listener understands. He says all the family names, but somewhat curiously, Lord Cromwell became “Bacram.”

It sounds odd to say of someone so young (he’ll be two in early September), but he seems contemplative as he thoughtfully considers things. I say: “Look, chickadees – chick-a-dee-dee-de.” And he listens and looks, head tilted to one side, before repeating the call. It’s easy to be totally silly with him and make up nonsense, eliciting great grins and chuckles.

I loved watching Lady B and Baby Brother greet their mother when she came back. Both brave while she was away – and overjoyed at her return!

*Image used by permission of the artist

A New Header And An Old Friend

Finally “Her spirits rose…” has a new header – the banner at the top – one of several variations I made thanks to my friend who paints in the woods, Andie Thrams.

Last summer Andie, (www.andiethrams.com), came to stay in the Buffalo for a lovely long time. We have known each other since the night 20 years ago we met as strangers in the Anchorage airport for a midnight flight back East. We’d been linked by a mutual friend, who thought we would get along (being flower painters), and an invitation to attend a retreat for people “who keep field journals in their work.”

We share a love of watercolor – and the making of handmade books. Andie introduced me to Vamp and Tramp, those traveling purveyors of artists’ books who represent her ongoing series, “In Forests,” beautiful accordion-fold hand bound books, illuminated by paintings and words. Most of these now reside in collections of libraries and universities around the country.

Andie paints the pages of her books while seated on a little pad on the forest floor. She hikes or kayaks into wild places, carrying her art supplies in a backpack – brushes, watercolors, long sheets of paper, and easel – and immerses herself to paint. The press of development, the wildfires and bark beetle of climate change threaten her studio spaces, making observing and recording these woodland parts of the natural world ever more urgent.

Giant firs, cedars, sequoias, coastal redwoods (she has a long list of beloved trees) and their understory of berries, ferns, and fungi can be overwhelming to paint. But Andie captures the changing greens of season, the glowing light through forest canopy, and enough individual form to make species recognizable. Most days here, she headed into our nearby woods – or ranged further and longer to the old growth of the Hoh Rainforest.

Toward the end of her stay, before she went to kayak with her husband on the fjords of Vancouver Island for two weeks, we sat at my computer, and she attempted to bring my meager Photoshop skills up a level. She tried not to lecture me about my faulty filing system – I can be slapdash about organizing; she is orderly and patient.

But I’ve kept it up, “lassoing” images and making future headers (including the one below in Andie’s honor – wildflowers I drew in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains).

Thanks, Andie, for computer tutorial, visit, and long friendship!

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