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Reading Goalz 2.0

Dear Reader,

I ended up reading 32 books in 2020, having initially set the goal of #52booksin52weeks and then dialing it down to #40book2020.

I do not have children and the milestones that accompany them, so this project afforded me, in my 34th year around the sun, with a unique way to mark time during an incredibly slow-moving and stressful year for the entire planet.

In June I posted about my reading goals and dropped a list of titles I had explored thus far. Here are the rest of them and a few further reflections on what it meant for me to undertake this endeavor.

Quit Like A Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol by Holly Whitaker

Whitaker is the founder of Tempest, a modern, women-focused online recovery program. Her book outlines concrete tools for quitting drinking and explores the deceptive ways in which the alcohol industry targets female consumers. Overall it frames sobriety as an empowering choice in line with Feminist values.

The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation

I read much of this sacred Hindu text over the course of a long night of insomnia last summer. I recall hyper-focusing on the pre-battle dialogue between prince Arjuna and an incarnation of Lord Vishnu as I fought my own interior battle with anxious thoughts. The spiritual wisdom of The Gita is stated with the gentle clarity of a blue sky… so much to revisit and absorb… That’s the rub with ambitious reading goals. This year, I look forward to reading and re-reading that is slow and deep.

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Baldwin writes about race in America in a way that is depressingly prescient. I prefer his writing over some of the newer anti-racist literature that is trending right now. His is such a compassionate, nuanced voice while remaining truthful and unaccommodating to White fear.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

A friend lent me this book after I expressed how much comfort I was taking lying under large, broad-leafed trees during COVID. This is a rich, layered novel worthy of multiple reads — it interweaves nine narratives, all with trees at their center, and then builds toward Drama, reading almost like a thriller toward the end.

The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry & Writing by Richard Hugo

One of the most salient pieces of information I took away from Triggering Town was that all writers, poets, pushers of paper and pen, artists, creatives, have “obsessions” or certain topics, themes that they return to over and over and that’s OK. Hugo’s suggestion is to lean into these — that’s where the gold lies.

Good Poems: Selected and Introduced by Garrison Keillor

This is such a great book! It contains a wide range of contemporary and older poets loosely categorized under themes ranging from “Lovers” to “Day’s Work.”

A Spring Within Us by Richard Rohr

This book reads much like the daily emails Rohr sends from the Center for Action and Contemplation, which he founded in 1987. Each week has a theme, ranging from an introduction to the Enneagram to a series of reflections on “Transforming Suffering.” Each week ends with some kind of meditative or contemplative practice. Rohr is a Franciscan priest and prolific author; when I get annoyed/frustrated with the Christian establishment his writings renew my faith.

Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Minds by Jen Wilkin, The Essential Jesus, and When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron are each part of a year of spiritual seeking.

The first provides practical practical tips for reading the Bible that you might expect from an exacting high school English teacher. I agree with Wilkin that many devotionals can have a “Xanax” effect in telling the reader what she wants to hear and so I appreciate the concrete tips she offers for the woman who longs to read the Bible for her own damn self. The Essential Jesus is the Gospel of Luke, and When Things Fall Apart is rooted in the Buddhist tradition, one that I could read ten or twenty times and still gain something new. It begins with a reflection on fear, including the bravery it takes to truly live in the present moment — “being present” is a truly vulnerable, groundless place to be, according to Chodron, and yet that is how we are called to live.

The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature by Sue Stuart-Smith

I found The Well-Gardened Mind through this article in The New Yorker. My husband has thrown himself into gardening since we moved to St. Louis in 2015 and though he has a very calm aura I’ve always sensed that tending to his vegetable garden offered him a profound and much-needed release. I bought the book for him and subsequently read it myself, curious about the psychological connection between gardeners and their plots. The author is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist married to a landscape architect… you can imagine where that takes her.

The Book of Genesis

Reading Women of the Word and The Essential Jesus sparked a hunger in me to undertake a different reading project altogether, that of making my way through The Good Book. The Book of Genesis, like The Gita, is written in a concise, assertive voice, inviting slow, patient reading.

The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner

A wise friend of mine once told me that there’s a direct relationship between feelings of personal powerlessness and the feeling of anger; for this and other reasons I have struggled against losing my temper during the season of COVID. This is another book intended to be ingested slowly. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on mothers and daughters, the description of “over-” and “under-” functioners in romantic relationships, and the hopeful outlook of effectively channeling anger versus somehow eradicating it.

We Are The Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life by Laura McKowen

We Are The Luckiest is another sobriety memoir or “quit lit” as the chicks say. The author used to co-host the Home podcast with the aforementioned Holly Whitaker and leads her own women’s online recovery program. One detail from this book that stands out to me is the reverence with which she speaks of paying her bills on time, making her bed, doing the mundane deal. Only a sober person who has worked hard for their recovery can understand this level of appreciation for the ordinary.

A Reflection & Recipe about Simplicity


Dear Readers,

Merry, merry Xmas, and/or Happy Holidays!  

Today I felt a pull to post, which came as a pleasant surprise. I have resisted writing in all its forms since submitting my poetry final last Saturday – and to be honest, I had been coasting in that class for quite a while, using poems drafted and revised earlier this fall.

So what landed me at my desk (er, couch + lap desk) today? Nothing more, nothing less than a festive potato recipe that feels fitting to share, given the prominent place of potatoes on most holiday tables, and the challenge inherent in so-called “food writing” of making some added meaning out of cooking instructions.

What I love about potatoes is their sense of possibility… they can serve as a blank canvas for different cooking techniques and flavors. The red potatoes in this dish take on a rich crispness after sizzling in Ghee and then steaming alongside rings of yellow onion. Salt and pepper plus fresh herbs such as thyme, sage, rosemary (or all three) finished off with chunks of fresh parsley round out the flavor palate.

It’s darn simple and darn good, kind of how I’m feeling about life these days – not that it’s all good, but that simplicity is the key to the goodness. I’ve done quite a bit of pruning and shedding since last Xmas – I am making less money, I have a different, arguably less impressive professional title, for example – and yet, I have, and I am enough. Yep, enough. I’ve been inspired by some of my friends to pick a word for 2021 and that’s my word: “enough.”

I don’t need to hide behind incessant productivity or busyness, behind a Xmas card perfect family unit, a chiseled physique or any of the other myriad ways many of us avoid getting comfortable with who we are and that we are inherently worthy. I am, quite simply, enough.

With that, I leave you with this sublimely simple potato recipe that leaves me satiated every time.

Red Potatoes with Clarified Butter, Onions, and Rosemary
Adapted from Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl of Love

Ingredients

12 small red potatoes or 6 larger ones
1/3 cup Ghee*
1 tablespoon fresh herb of your choice (or 1 teaspoon dried herb)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 medium onion, sliced into thin-ish rings
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

Instructions

Cut small potatoes in half or larger ones in quarters.
Chop your herbs, measure out the salt and pepper and place in a small bowl.
Chop parsley, and place in a separate container.
Peel and slice the onion.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium high heat until very hot. Add Ghee, swirl to coat the pan, and let it warm up. Place potatoes white side down on skillet so that they sizzle in the butter.
Sprinkle your bowl of herbs, salt, and pepper over the potatoes.
Cover the pan, reduce heat to medium-low, and let everything cook for approximately 10 min.
Remove cover and flip each potato over with tongs, add onion, and cook for another 30 minutes or until potatoes are golden brown and nicely cooked through and onions are caramelized.
Sprinkle the finished product with chopped parsley!

*If you don’t have Ghee, you can make your own clarified butter by melting a stick of unsalted butter in a sauce pan over low heat (just let the entire stick sit there and slowly melt…) then skim the solid fats off the surface with a knife. Warning: it’s a bit of a painstaking process!

Book Review: An Honest Hunger

An Honest Hunger

An Honest Hunger, a new volume of poems written by poet and journalist Robert Lowes, is both a deeply satisfying and accessible read. Lowes writes in a wry, understated voice, deftly touching on a variety of existential matters including God, death, and the transcendent power of nature in a way that feels refreshingly light.

Some of my favorite poems, like “Falling Asleep” and “The Man with the Fresh Haircut,” playfully dramatize mundane aspects of daily life, taking the reader on a fun ride while inviting them to look at the world a little more closely. Others, such as “A Passion for Everyone,” and “My Daughter’s Breakfast,” are confidently straightforward in their commentary on big and expansive topics.

An Honest Hunger is a quick read that will have you coming back to reread and savor, and Lowes comes through as an experienced, seasoned writer at play with his own craft. His poetic playground draws us into a war between Jesus and a black hole, meditations on the sun, mousetraps, and hot summer tomato gardens, onto the face of a lost boy on a milk carton, and much, much more.

I highly recommend, and look forward to the next outpouring.

Easy Recipe for Baking Any White Fish

Chef Caroline

Wait… what’s that about fish? Just getting your attention real quick with a picture of my niece Caroline playing in her miniature kitchen 🙂

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m trying my hand at the pescatarian life. This recipe for baked salmon never fails, but I tend to fall in a major rut with it… fish at my house means salmon all the time, baked with lemon and butter and dill. I did attempt to liven things up this week with a recipe for roasted salmon with miso rice and ginger scallion vinaigrette, but by the time dinner rolled around I needed something quick and easy and chucked my plans for the no-fail mainstay.

That’s OK, because I have landed on another very simple way to cook white fish — of any kind. The recipe that follows is a dumbed-down, cheaper version of Ina Garten’s mustard-roasted fish, and it’s based on what I had in my fridge and a big filet of fresh snapper that my husband picked up at the store yesterday.

Easy Baked White Fish

Ingredients

  • Any kind of white fish, cut into one big piece or smaller filets
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 4 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 small onion, diced (or better yet, minced)
  • Kosher salt and black pepper

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Place fish in a baking dish, pat dry, and season generously with salt and pepper.
  • In a small mixing bowl, whisk together all ingredients + 1 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper.
  • Pour the sauce over the fish!
  • Bake, uncovered, between 10 and 15 minutes, depending on how your fish is cut. Will be nice and flaky when done.

Heave a beautiful evening.

Ginger

What I’m Reading on Juneteenth

Happy Juneteenth.

I attended a life-affirming “expression of solidarity” on Grand Avenue — a group of white parishioners at the St. Margaret of Scotland Church with Black Lives Matter signs, others that read “Fight Systemic Racism” and others saying “Racism Is Ungodly.” Most cars that drove past sounded their horns, waved, and shouted in agreement.

Here’s a few articles I have flagged for myself in my ongoing effort to educate myself about issues of racial justice. I’m keenly aware that my white privilege affords me the quiet space and time to do so, as well as the option to ignore this information altogether.

As we hold up signs, declaring ourselves to be allies, may we continue the inner work.

 

This Grief You Cry Out From

Black SquareYesterday I participated in a local march for Black lives.

As I screamed the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Arbery, Eric Garner, Mike Brown… with so many others unnamed… my eyes stung with tears and chills coursed through my arms and legs.

I have spent my entire career trying to learn and grow in my understanding of racial dynamics in this deeply broken country, and the BLM signs, the calls for justice, the rallying of my community… perhaps I should have felt hopeful, but it all felt like too little too late.

Last night, as another young man died in Atlanta, I broke down into sobs for all the deaths…

This morning I find myself drawn to Rumi’s poem, “Love Dogs”:

One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
“So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.

“Why did you stop praising?”
“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”

“This longing you express is the return message!”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

Amid my uncertainty about where this will lead, Goddamnit, I will keep crying out, not only through signs and chants, but through research, action, and humble listening.

I will embrace my sadness, my anger. You say “White silence is violence?” Then let this sadness, this anger, be my saving cup.

Sleeping Baby Post

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As I tap this message on my phone, a warm, clinging lump of baby is sleeping on my chest. I’m seated in a gray rocking chair in a dark, Winnie-the-Pooh themed room. A white noise machine breathes steadily as I turn my head from side to side every so often, doing my best to deal with the crick in my neck, since her little head is resting nearly atop my throat. 

For this sixteen-month old I hold, so much comes and goes, and so quickly: feelings, desires, irritations, joys. Distraction is the key that turns her universe. One moment, a bouncing ball, the next moment, a blinking toy. Both sides of the toddler coin — the unceasing curiosity and the fragile temper — challenge me to find my inner Buddha.

There’s the yin and the yang: the way her eyes always catch the gossamer white butterfly that frequents the backyard — a reminder to Look. On the other hand, when she leans in unexpectedly and chomps into my arm, I’m pretty well forced to cultivate compassion and breathe into the discomfort, whispering, “Gentle” until she lifts her teeth out of my skin.

I’ve been reading two well-known Buddhist authors recently, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh. Chodron writes about the middle path, which describes a way of living in which a person does not move “right” or “left” in response to the moving tide of desires or fears. Instead, she does nothing, moving straight through them as they inevitably pass. 

The “middle path” obviously requires an attention span longer than a few minutes, and thoroughly contradicts the existential reality of a toddler. What’s interesting to me, though, is how many full-grown adults’ inner monologues resemble the behavior of toddlers. How many of us are, in our heads, making an angry mess, of dare I say, sinking our teeth into someone trying to look out for us? How many of us would break into tears or flail our arms, metaphorically speaking, if asked to sit with our hunger, our boredom, our exhaustion? 

So it turns out that “Haley Grace,” the little person in my charge from 8:30-5:30 before I return to my desk (or more likely, my kitchen island) to work through the latest writing or reading assignment of my MFA, has something to teach me. Gentle, I repeat, gentle… as I try to walk the middle path. 

Mountain Wisdom

Pic 1 Mountain Wisdom

When I think back on a recent weekend get-away to Asheville, North Carolina, I picture the four of us — my husband, Padraic, and I, and another couple, two of our closest friends — trekking up a steep dirt path on the Appalachian Trail, our sporadic dialogue muted by the thick prairie grass, the dense clouds overhead and the slope of mountains cushioning us at every side. This was a short hike on our way back to our friends, Allison and Nic’s, home in Nashville, but still, we took the pains to wind our way through a maze of gravel switchbacks, blocking out the road’s deep trenches, (which gripped at least one unlucky, abandoned vehicle), for the chance to be held by something soft and strong — and silent — in the midst of lives swirling with transitions.

Pic 2 Mountain Wisdom

Allison and Nic are high school sweethearts, and I’ve known them both since seventh grade. At this point in our lives, we’ve been through countless changes together: graduations, weddings, buying homes, landing jobs, changing jobs, moving across the country, picking up and moving again. So there’s something about a leisurely, circuitous hike through the mountains that can’t help but feel suggestive of the bigger picture — quite the literal version of “upward mobility”… No seriously: the rhythm of rest spots and overlooks, not unlike weddings in their capacity to present broad swaths of life from one dramatic vantage point, and the circuitous piece, of course, with the ups and downs and rapidly shifting views that somehow begin and end in the same, asphalt parking lot, with the panting dogs and the dubious bathrooms. Whether the parking lot represents the grounding force of friendship or marriage, I have no idea, but I do know that we are all slightly different on the way down than we are on the way up, and ambling sweaty and thirsty into the backseat of the car, there’s a joy to living so-called “real life” together as buzzing and blossoming life, on the side of a mountain.

Pic 3 Mountain Wisdom

In the evenings, the four of us roamed around Asheville’s city-center, snapping pictures at a local print shop of slyly Southern sayings like “Butter My Butt and Call Me a Biscuit.” We sampled local beers and people-watched from the periphery of the famous drum circle, where I watched a fit, tanned, solo silver-haired woman skip and dip and lose herself in the drumming, beautifully alone in a circle of strangers.

Pic 4 Mountain Wisdom

Meanwhile, Padraic and I had a day to bum around Nashville while Allison and Nic were at work. We studied hanging sculptures composed of pill bottles, and abstract landscapes painted by Australian aborigines and canvases of thickly layered ribbons representing motherhood. With our heartfelt and respectful studying, a student of performance studies married to a student of philosophy, I confess that the art on the walls, with my honest reverence for it, sticks with me like the wildflowers on the mountainside – something beautiful and precious, designed with formidable intelligence, but so fleetingly experienced.

Last Pic Mountain Wisdom

More deeply seared in my memory was standing on one leg, upside down, after the art museum jaunt, holding a yoga pose next to Padraic on one of the hottest days of the summer. Trying in vain to focus on my “intention” and not simply grit my teeth through the intense heat, I watched a steady tap of sweat drip from our foreheads onto our mats. Which brings me back to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and The Appalachian Trail, and hiking with Padraic and Allison and Nic, the taste of salt on our skin and the gulp of cool air when we reached the mountaintop. Perhaps it’s not the majestic views or the lovely little wildflowers that transform us, but the shared, steady suffering of the climb.

A Different Kind of Recipe

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Ah, teaching…and summer’s off. If you’ve been reading recently, I hope I’ve conveyed my gratitude for the time to spend with family, read, cook, travel, and write. Summer’s off are such a beautiful thing. But I think many teachers would agree that summer’s off are also, in many ways, summer’s “off.” The teaching must go on, come August or September, and so there is curriculum to be written, errands and doctor’s appointments to be scratched off the personal to-do list, and resources to be gathered.

The resources to be gathered part…

I’m trying crowd funding for the first time. I spend plenty of my own money on resources for my classroom — last school year, having shared classrooms for four years, I had to start from scratch when it came to decorating my own room. Also, my projector didn’t work, something I use everyday, so I was left with no choice but to buy my own, justifying it as an investment in my teaching career. When I tried to get creative, scissors and glue sticks and graph paper and construction paper were all on me, which added up. I had to scrounge for my own pencil sharpener, replace my own dying markers, provide lotion, and sometimes buy my own kleenex. Then I purchased graduation gifts for a some of my seniors. This is the norm in teaching.

And another norm in teaching: asking people you know — family, friends, readers of your blog — to fund resources that your school cannot provide. In some ways it’s a beautiful movement, and in some ways, it’s a very sad reflection on the lack of funding in schools, especially when schools have such high expectations for their students and their teachers. But I’m asking all the same.

Here is my site, Chromebooks for Writing Classes with a video of me talking about how chromebooks — even a few — would help my students and help me do more as a teacher. Things like project-based learning, in-class research, increased student engagement. In the video I focus on how these chromebooks would benefit my classroom, specifically, but I would share them with my colleagues, and so, in reality, they would benefit an entire English department. If you can give, thank you. If you can share on social media, thank you. If you can click on the link and give it some of your attention, thank you.

As I share in the video, here’s “a different kind of recipe,” written by my student Kumari, a sweet reflection on what it takes to write a good essay:

The Perfect Essay

Ingredients

4 cups of sole-purposed brain power
4 teaspoons of creativity
4 cups of dedicated research
2 cups of MLA format sourcing
5 tablespoons of brainstorming
4 cups of editing

Directions

  • Place brainstorming in bowl. Let it sit for a few hours. Then, when it feels right to YOU, add in the dedicated research and stir.
  • When the mixture is smooth, begin adding in the sole-purposed brain power and the creativity alternately, while stirring.
  • When both are in the bowl, grab a blender and blend until the mixture is fluffy and smooth.
  • Then add in the editing and MLA format sourcing, alternately until both are in. Stir.
  • Next, put the mixture in the fridge and take it out everyday and mix it for one to two hours until the mixture is absolutely perfect.
  • Then give the mixture to your teacher, get her opinion on it, and with her advice, polish and add ingredients as you see fit. Put the mixture into the oven and wait until it is golden brown.
  • Take it out and enjoy it, a steaming sweet taste of success 🙂

I’d argue that as technology is increasingly a part of the workplace and our personal life, the only thing missing from this recipe is technology. It has a prominent place in our world, and it deserves a prominent place in our classrooms. So consider this “ask” a recipe in the works for better learning, better writing, better teaching. Thanks for considering.

 

Chekhov: A Biography and The Signature of All Things

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I have a tendency to pick up thick, dry (well, actually sort of musty) biographies and stubbornly plow my way through them. Admittedly, I called it quits on page 600 of Chekhov: A Biography by Ernest J. Simmons in favor of the above mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert novel, which is about the same length and which I tore through in the matter of about a week, but more on that later.

The back cover of Simmons’s bio reads: “This work reads like a massive Russian novel, but one in which a real hero dominates a tapestry of real life.” Let me assure you, this is false advertising – it reads like a halting, over-wrought research report in which the minutiae of Chekhov’s day-to-day existence is loyally recorded in painstaking detail. As with biopics, I think there is an art to writing biographies in which the story of a person’s life can be both well-researched and selectively rendered so as to leave the reader with a more memorable, vibrant impression of the essence of who that person was, and I’m fascinated by that art. Simmons’s approach is less than inspiring. But it was certainly informative, and inspires me to delve deeper into Chekhov’s body of work, of which, when I say deeper, I confess I am treading in very shallow waters. My exposure to Chekhov, embarrassingly, is limited to some of his short stories, adapted to the stage for a show I worked on called “Chekhov’s Life in the Country.”

Chekhov was a physician, first, then ever-increasingly, a writer. He called medicine his wife and literature his mistress (quite literally – he married very late in life). He constantly gave away his medical services for free and started writing humorous stories for cheap magazines as a way to make money for his large family. He wrote under a pseudonym, and he wrote hastily. This business of writing was a mercantile one in which he churned out stories for small sums. Simmons never goes into much detail about Chekhov’s early life as a reader; rather, he gives the impression that Chekhov was full of stories and gifted with powers of observation and imagination — that the stories just poured out of him.

It took time for Chekhov to see and embrace that he had a special genius, and he slowly graduated from the popular magazines to publications of literature. His relationship to the theatre and playwriting was a bit rocky; his plays were often ill-received at first, as they didn’t adhere to the conventions of Russian drama. Tolstoy criticized him for writing “the world as he saw it,” rather than infusing his work with a moral perspective, but Chekhov and Tolstoy eventually developed a mutually admiring relationship. Chekhov had tons of friends, and when he wasn’t writing, he was usually entertaining a group of visitors – he also loved to garden and became something of a real estate enthusiast near the end of his life. He was extremely close to his sister, and held out on marriage until late in life when his tuberculosis was in full swing, when he married a Moscow actress named Olga. Interestingly, he launched on a journey to Siberia in the middle of his life and wrote a report on the treatment of prisoners there. And… I’ll leave you there. I’m a bit Chekhov-ed out. But suffice it to say that the book only builds up your admiration and even, affection for this literary giant – it does humanize him and portray him as a likeable, relatable figure.

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In contrast, The Signature of All Things was a quick read. It starts with the story of Henry Whittacre, a scrappy, poor boy who grew up the son of an orchard farmer and longed for a bigger, better life. He starts stealing flowers from a famous botanist for chunks of money from aspiring botanists, and ends up going to work for the famous botanist. After sailing the world, he marries a Dutch woman, takes her to America, and builds a formidable estate in 19th century Philadelphia.

From then on, it’s his daughter Alma’s story. Her relationship to her adopted sister, Prudence, her sexual awakening starting in her father’s library, her unrequited love for the printmaker George Hawkes, her silly friendship with a young woman who later becomes George’s wife and later still, goes insane, her mother’s death, her obsession with mosses to counteract the loneliness of spinsterhood, her fleeting marriage to an orchid painter named Ambrose Pike, her father’s death, and upon learning some surprising information from her mother’s nursemaid, the decision to leave the estate to Prudence and sail to Tahiti…

The book gets its title from the Ambrose Pike character, who confesses to Alma that he went insane when he thought he could discern God’s imprint on every trace of the natural world. Alma’s own life story is infused with a deep devotion to and lifelong study of nature, and so, in her own, more grounded way, she sees God’s signature in nature, too.

Following her travels to Tahiti and around the world, when Alma seeks to resolve her conception of the mysterious Ambrose Pike, she settles in Holland with her mother’s relatives. As an old woman, her study of mosses leads her toward her own theory of natural selection, but she resists publishing her theory because she can’t bridge the gap between the self-sacrificing nature of people like her once-despised sister Prudence with the idea that struggle and conquest define human nature. So at the core of this novel is the tension between the natural world, in all its beauty, and the unique beauty of humans.

In many ways The Signature of All Things reminds me of the novels I enjoyed as a girl – and one of my favorite novels to this day, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, which Padraic is finally reading this summer, to my delight. You have a precocious, curious, slightly unconventional female heroine free to study or explore in a world buoyed by inherited wealth, a historical setting around the 1800s, and an epic, birth-to-death scope. I couldn’t help but notice that the character Prudence’s story, heavily intertwined with the abolitionist movement during the Civil War, is sidelined, in favor of privileged Alma’s love interests and reverence for mosses. Perhaps it would be more edifying to write, or read, a book about Prudence. The only other book I’ve read by Elizabeth Gilbert – Eat, Pray, Love – is also steeped in the world of privileged white women.

So it’s in many ways an old-fashioned tale, if such a thing exists, but a delectable, escapist one, perfect for car rides back to Chicago, which still feels like my second home, or outdoor evenings in Saint Louis spent rocking (as in, a chair) and reading.

My parting advice – skip the Chekhov biography for a collection of his short stories, starting with The Lady with The Little Dog (I love this story), or a cold read of The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, or The Seagull, and in the meantime, if you’re looking for a virtual garden in which to explore, curl up with The Signature of All Things. Enjoy 🙂

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