Mexican Gothic satisfies even as it creeps out readers

Mystery. Check!

Creepy mansion. Check!

Cemetery. Death. Violence. Check, check, check!

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia has all the classic elements of a gothic novel. Set in 1950s Mexico, the inhospitable house in the countryside not far from a defunct silver mine is like another character, one indispensable from the horrifying plot.

I am probably not a good reader to review a gothic novel having never read one (no, not even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) but maybe the perspective of a novice might help others decide whether to try something different.

Our heroine is, refreshingly, female: Noemi Taboada, a debutante who enjoys a life of cocktail parties and flirting with suitors. Her cousin sends a cryptic letter that alarms her family and Noemi is dispatched to determine if her cousin is sick, crazy or just fine.

Of course, the cousin is not just fine, or there’d be no story. But is she sick? Crazy? Or something else? Noemi arrives at a decrepit house with a strange assortment of residents, including an aging and possibly racist patriarch and a quiet but oddly compelling young man.

Noemi is brash. She smokes when she’s asked not to. She drives into town without permission and pokes around for information. She defies the conventions of the house. In a slow burn sort of way, Noemi uncovers troubling truths about the gloomy house and its residents. By the half-way point in the book, you’ll be compelled to keep reading even as Moreno-Garcia amps up the terror. You will want to get to the bottom of things as much as Noemi does. Moreno-Garcia introduces a lot of elements that appear at first to be red herrings, but she answers questions and wraps up the mystery and the plot in a satisfying way. You might even believe in haunted houses when you get to the end.

Though set in Mexico, the book has more Latin than Spanish. It’s entirely understandable to someone whose Mexican exposure amounts to a few days on a Gulf of Mexico beach. If you like Stephen King, you’ll like this book.

Big book of advice makes great good nights

After I glance at the front page of the newspaper every morning, I turn to the advice columns.

(My newspaper nowadays is electronic, and I read it on my iPad. I feel strongly I get the least biased news reports from newspaper; it’s still biased, but less so. If you’re getting all your news on Facebook or 24-hour news networks, please reconsider your sources.)

Beyond the news, I’m addicted to Ask Amy and Carolyn Hax and Dear Abby. But the woman who started it all (or, at least, made it famous) was Ann Landers, otherwise known as Esther Pauline “Eppie” Lederer (she took over the “Ask Ann Landers” column in 1955 a few months before her sister began offering advice under the pen name Abigail Van Buren).

It’s the letters that are so fascinating (though I like comparing my own advice to the column authors’). Truth is stranger than fiction, and people are weird. I suppose the true confession is that the columns made me feel morally superior. “At least I’m not that stupid or crazy.”

In an effort to escape violent television shows and the bombastic talking heads on 24-hour news networks at the end of the day, I recently picked up Ann Landers’ Wake Up and Smell the Coffee! Advice, Wisdom, and Uncommon Good Sense, a whole book of advice columns! It was published in 1996 and a little bit quaint but still compelling. I read a chapter or so of letters and answers before drifting off to sleep, and it was mindlessly satisfying.

Since I love true stories anyway, this was a good way to enjoy true stories without getting wrapped up in a memoir about sorrow, sickness or psychos. The advice guru covers relationships, sex, work, aging, disease and death, all with wit, insight and humor. Ann Landers was a gem, and her book will remind you of it (or introduce you, if you’re a younger type of reader).

Sweet dreams.

Perhaps observation rather than decadence on Fat Tuesday

In observance of Ash Wednesday tomorrow, I offer a little piece that is different from the philosophy of Fat Tuesday, during which we Christians indulge in every sort of craven desire before we sacrifice for Lent. Instead, in the midst of a brutal blast of winter and a worldwide pandemic, maybe a little Buddhist embrace of our joy and suffering is in order.

I wrote the following piece two years ago. The man mentioned in this piece recovered enough to live many more months, but last year, he went to heaven, a victim of COVID-19 here on earth.

Bearing witness

Is this heaven

If you think meditation requires sitting cross-legged and chanting “Om,” you might be surprised to learn that’s only one way to practice meditation. Dozens of contemplative practices exist including everything from sitting in silence to dance and many acts in between. One of them is bearing witness, defined by Jules Shuzen Harris as “acknowledging that something exists or is true.” He suggests the Buddhist perspective of bearing witness “is to embrace both the joy and the suffering we encounter.”

For the past six months or so, I have been participating in a meditation practice with a small group of women at a nearby church. Last month, we met in my church (that is, my house, which used to be a church). After we rang the church bell, we meditated to the sound of bells. It was lovely.

But today I’m thinking of bearing witness as a meditation because I did so earlier this week when I spent a few minutes in silence holding a dying man’s hand. Without getting into the sticky HIPAA details of who this man is and whether or not he is actually dying, let’s just stipulate we all are dying. But we’re not all breathing with a ventilator in the critical care unit of a hospital. This man was. If you’re a more hopeful sort, you might argue this man was recovering, not dying. To-may-to, to-mah-to. Unless you’re a baby, we’re all in some state of disintegration.

This experience has clung to my consciousness like Pig-pen’s dust cloud, not in a haunting way but in a solemn, reverential way; it seems appropriate with the observance tomorrow of Ash Wednesday, which I associate with one’s path to death and resurrection. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. For dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”

In between the hullabaloo of a number of visitors checking on this man’s well-being and the nurse washing his face and pressing various buttons on his monitors and intravenous drips, I was left alone in the room with him for about 20 minutes. Cell phones were not allowed in the ward. Food wasn’t permitted. There wasn’t a TV in the room. Only the man, carefully arranged in a hospital bed, and an array of machinery. Instead of seeking a distraction, I paid attention to the moment.

I took the man’s hand and was surprised to find it warmer than my own. I held it gently because he was so frail.

I considered singing a lullaby, but he is hearing impaired and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be heard by anyone else or that I could remember whole verses. So I sat in silence listening to the ventilator do its work.

Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out.

Every breath is a miracle if you think about it, but it was even more special in this setting. This is exactly what one might do to center one’s mind during meditation, only one would be concentrating on one’s own breath instead of someone else’s.

Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out.

Though mostly unconscious, it was clear this man was suffering. Occasionally, he would open his mouth and grimace. But he would also sometimes turn his head and smile. There was small but real joy in these fleeting moments. He was warm. He was breathing. He was alive. Life, being a gift, should be celebrated even in the midst of pain, I believe. Sitting there with him, this is what I bore witness to.

Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out.

I did not consider the future. I have the luxury of being emotionally separated enough from the man that his state did not disturb or worry me. I was in no position to help the situation or control it or even speak words of comfort (he couldn’t hear me anyway and with a tracheotomy, he couldn’t speak either so conversation was not an option). I could just be. Holding his hand. And bearing witness. See him in the moment instead his past mistakes or all the machines in the present or what the future might hold.

According to Harris, bearing witness has psychological and spiritual benefits for the bearer: “It enables us to connect with a place of real empathy. It also provides a kind of catharsis, a release from our emotional reactions of pity, shame, or fear. Spiritually, bearing witness invokes a sense of interconnectedness, of oneness, a direct realization of the wholeness of life.”

I felt these benefits while sitting with this man. For a few minutes, I let go of my shame and pity, and in bearing witness to his joy and suffering, I felt fortunate. My private moments in that room were a blessing to him, I hope, and to me. It’s not every day one observes so intimately the process of living and dying.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it

An enterprising rock sculptor is at work on the walking paths around my Texas residence.

I described this interesting two-foot-tall rock formation to my mother, and she explained, “That’s an inuksuk!”

Well, you learn something new every day.

And then my dad chimed in, and he said, “It’s a cairn.”

Why, yes, it’s that, too.

An inuksuk is a manmade stone landmark, or cairn, for use by the Inuit and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America. A cairn is a man-made pile or stack of stones; the word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic.

Inuksuit (plural for inuksuk) and cairns are often used to mark boundaries or paths.

The creator here in my housing development is not some kid playing with rocks. Well, he might be a kid, but he understands the meaning behind the formations because they are built in forks in the road, as if to draw attention to the traveler’s choice.

When I brought my Beloved down the path on another day, I found another, smaller inuksuk near the first one I found.

On another path, I found an enormous formation built on a stone wall, at sort of a T in the path.

I rarely meet anyone on these paths. It’s odd to think someone took a few minutes or more to find and balance the rocks, and yet I see them only in my own isolation. It is a strange but special communion.

These works of art or navigation are a bit ephemeral. A few days after I brought my Beloved down the first path, the smaller inuksuk was just a pile of rubble. All evidence of its existence was gone (except my photo).

Speaking of ephemeral, how about a beautiful sunrise. I snapped this picture off my deck. If I were a better photographer, I would have a picture of the sunrise behind an inuksuk (alas, I am not that photographer). Given the deep freeze most of America is experiencing (even here, in Texas!), I think a warm picture of the sun might be the balm we all need.

“Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against, we are in harmony with reality.”

~ Pema Chodron, American Tibetan Buddhist

Grisham steps out of his mold, and so did I

I’m don’t particularly like fiction novels. I’m not a fan of John Grisham. And I’m not particularly fond of football.

But I do like books about travel, and John Grisham’s Playing for Pizza is like a love letter to Italy. It’s a departure for Grisham in that it’s not about an attorney or the legal profession, but when you’re a best selling author with a huge following, you’re granted a lark.

Playing for Pizza tells the story of Rick Dockery, a third-string NFL quarterback who fails spectacularly as the book opens. With few options but little interest in getting out of football, he pursues a job as lead quarterback with the Parma Panthers in the Italian Football League. A 28-year-old native of Iowa, Dockery is hardly someone who would be called worldly. Before arriving there, he doesn’t even know where Parma is, he doesn’t speak Italian and he’s more familiar with cheeseburgers than the cheese for which Parma is world-famous.

But Dockery warms up to Parma and his Panther teammates as the book—and football games—unfold. The plot is unsurprising but compelling. The characters are many, and the experienced author fleshes them out with vigor and imagination. Of course, the football players are brutes and the women are beautiful, but what would you expect in this genre? I was a little astounded by how some characters are introduced and then summarily dismissed (get that? a legal reference) but this habit did not distract from my enjoyment. The villain, however, is a journalist and as a former journalist, I was less pleased with that plot point.

Grisham’s game descriptions read like the sports pages (which is fine for people who read game recaps in sports pages), but where he really shines are his descriptions of Parma’s food scene, Italian opera and Old World architecture. Now I want to visit Parma, too! Here’s a sample:

“This is my favorite,” Carlo began in English, then switched to a friendlier tongue. “It’s a stuffed pasta roll,” Sam was saying as they gawked at the delicacy before them. “It is stuffed with veal, pork, chicken livers, sausage, ricotta cheese, and spinach, and layered with fresh pasta.”

That was just the first course! After the appetizer! You simply cannot come away from this book without craving a glass of wine, an antipasti plate and a plate of pasta, and since I read this book while on a diet, food porn has fewer calories, so I was OK with it.

I read Playing for Pizza because it was suggested by my uncle for our family book club via Zoom. The point of any book club is to be introduced to books you might not ordinarily read, and my uncle’s choice certainly drove me down an unconventional path. His enthusiasm for Playing for Pizza was contagious, and our book discussion was lively (especially when we debated the merits—of lack thereof—of visiting Venice). This book would be a great diversion for fans of Grisham, football or Italy, and I can imagine binge-reading it on the beach to great delight. Prego! (That’s Italian for “you’re welcome.”)

Travel Tuesday: Umlauf Sculpture Garden @umlaufsculpture

If ever there was time to visit a sculpture garden, a pandemic is it.

Sculpture gardens are outdoors. You can keep your social distance. Plenty of opportunity to restore your soul by considering art and absorbing nature’s beauty.

I love sculpture gardens (see evidence here and here). Recently, my Beloved and I escaped some of the COVID-19 doldrums by visiting the Umlauf Sculpture Garden + Museum in Austin, Texas.

The Umlauf Sculpture Garden exhibits the work of Charles Umlauf and other contemporary sculptors in a natural setting. Umlauf was a 20th century artist who taught at the University of Texas for 40 years. He sculpted family groupings, whimsical animals, religious figures and nudes in various media; most of the sculptures in the Umlauf garden are in bronze. The museum espouses that there are more Umlauf sculptures in public locations than works by any other artist in Texas.

The garden offers a truly beautiful stroll on a nice day.

The Kiss, in a place of honor in the center of the property, is among the dozens of bronze sculptures in the garden. Inspired by French sculptor Augusts Rodin’s Kiss in 1889, Umlauf chose to extend the female figure’s leg dramatically. The passion is evident.

Margo Sawyer’s Circle [Synchronicity] is among a few sculptures by other artists at Umlauf. Made of brick with ceramic glaze, this site-specific piece sits below a beautiful waterfall. This piece beneath my feet is also a little bit over my head, but that’s OK with me; I don’t have to love a piece of art for it to make me think.

Right now, the juried exhibition Design Shine is showing at the Umlauf. One of the pieces is Oculi by Joe D’Elia, Sean Taylor and Sergio Hermoza. From the Design Shine description: “Oculi seeks to engage visitors by aligning different views into one, encouraging them to consider their own perspectives.” This particular piece is a wonder of structure but also implementation. Imagine the three-dimensional thinking required to install each circle in a row.

Whether you are interested in sculpture or gardening, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden+ Museum is a worth a visit. Admission for adults is $7, seniors $5, students $3 and youth 13-17 $1. Children younger than 12, active military and veterans can get in free.

Between a rock and a heart place #KindnessRocksProject

Kindness rocks.

Somebody, or maybe more than one somebody, in the Austin, Texas, area housing development in which I reside during the winter months subscribes to this philosophy.

The Kindness Rocks Project™, a movement begun by Megan Murphy, encourages people to leave rocks painted with inspiring messages along the path of life. The theory: one message at just the right time can change your entire day, outlook, life.

Where I live, these inspiring rocks are sprinkled along the path to the smokehouse, to the mailboxes and along the roadways as I walk through the neighborhood. Some share a phrase, a word, a symbol. A quick scroll through Twitter reveals rocks like these are tucked along trails throughout the United States (and probably world) (#KindnessRocksProject).

Some of them look like the work of a child, but others appear to be painted by someone with more experience.

I would have thought someone with too much time and craft paint on their hands decided to paint rocks and leave them about randomly until I saw mention of The Kindness Rocks Project™ in the last (ever) issue of Oprah magazine. It’s not an isolated art project, it’s a movement. Love, Live, Pucker Up, sweetheart.

And then, forget the paint, I ran across this found-art sculpture on one of the paths over the weekend. It was a path I’ve walked before, but I never noticed this assemblage. What a beautiful reminder that I’m not alone on the trail.

Fruitful Labor tells Grandma’s story in heartfelt way

If you’ve subscribed to this blog any length of time, you’ve run across entries written about my paternal grandmother.

Grandma was a tiny person physically, but she loomed large in her family in part because of her longevity. Born in 1915, she died in 2019 at age 104. I have clear, vivid memories of her because I knew her when I was an adult, a middle-aged adult. We were pen pals for decades, and as the proud recipient of many of her diaries, I have relived many of her days with her as I paged through her journals.

Drawing on those diaries, her letters, my memories and the memories of some of the other people in our family and community who will never forget her, I wrote a biography, Fruitful Labor: How to Live to 104 Gracefully, Gratefully. Today is launch day!

Fruitful Labor describes Grandma’s life, her faith, her labor and, to a lesser extent, her pies (more about her pies here). The phrase “fruitful labor” doesn’t just refer to Grandma’s pies, though. It’s also used on Philippians 1:21 in reference to life here on earth. At her request, I read a passage from Philippians at Grandma’s funeral when she died two years ago. She didn’t just fill space during her lifetime; she was a faithful servant.

Whether or not you like pie or knew my grandmother, you might enjoy this little book (and pick up a few tips for longevity, the first being if you’re gonna eat pie, you should make it from scratch). Here’s the book synopsis:

Laura Wallgren (1915-2019) was a farmer’s wife, a devoted Christian and a talented quilter. Living a simple life among the rolling hills of New York Mills, Minnesota, Grandma Laura was plain speaking, spunky and a little bit vain. She also was one of those rare Americans who lived to 104. Can you imagine? Even she couldn’t imagine. The centenarian said more than once she didn’t know why she had lived so long. But the answer may be found among her twenty-five years of diary entries documenting family, good food, the weather and gratitude for all of it.

Revealing a retirement story that unfolds in a small town in the mid-1980s to 2009, Wallgren’s journals feel like an anthropological study of a Central Minnesota widow. The diaries are a quilt of sorts, detailing the dash between the years of birth and death. From the threads, Wallgren’s granddaughter Monica Lee coaxes stories of her grandmother’s appreciation for fresh fruits and vegetables, an accident in which Wallgren breaks her neck at age 84, and a touching account of a daughter-in-law’s battle with cancer. Each day is its own unique block, yet knitted together, patterns emerge, colors coordinate and a beautiful tapestry of family love and personal perseverance emerges.

A charming tale of family ties, over-the-top gardening and persisting despite the brutal Minnesota winters and the volume of grief only a 104-year-old experiences, this heartfelt portrait of a Midwestern centenarian who carries on with grit and humor is like a Wallgren family recipe for fresh strawberry pie (recipe not included).

Fruitful Labor has been available since December, but I waited to officially launch it until I could send copies to my cousins, Grandma’s grandchildren, to whom the book is dedicated. I put this book together with them in mind. Paging through Grandma’s diaries these past few months made me feel so close to her, and I wanted them to feel the same. We all are clear evidence of Grandma’s presence on earth, and now this book is another way she lives on.

Fruitful Labor is available on Amazon as both a paperback and Kindle version, and it’s priced to share:

71 ways to welcome winter

My mother’s least favorite season is winter. The season is long where she lives in north Central Minnesota, it’s gray and the closest she can get to gardening is perusing seed catalogs.

So when I made a list last year of ways to savor summer, she kept asking me for ways to savor winter. Summer was easy for her to savor; winter much more challenging. I made that summer list to recognize what a strange year 2020 had been already by May. I didn’t want summer to slip through my fingers like spring had. So I came up with 108 ways to savor the season, one suggestion for each day between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day.

Mom and I sat down together and brainstormed such a winter list. A similar list for winter would require more than 108 ideas for some places (I’m looking at you, Minnesota, ye land of eternal winter) and a lot different ideas for other places (what do you have to say for yourself, Texas?). It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to the pandemic blues we’re all enduring, but it’s a start.

Welcome Winter

Sights of Winter

  1. Watch the snow fall through the window.
  2. Look for the waves in the snowdrifts.
  3. See sundogs around the sun.
  4. Appreciate daylight.
  5. Look for a cardinal.
  6. Appreciate the blooms of a Christmas cactus.
  7. Look for glittering snow.
  8. Gaze at the Wolf Moon (January full moon).
  9. Watch Northern Lights.
  10. Buy a poinsettia.
  11. Enjoy (or make) an ice sculpture.
  12. Pick out a winter constellation.

Doings of Winter

  1. Watch a fire in the hearth.
  2. Take a twilight walk.
  3. Snuggle up with a cozy blanket.
  4. Shovel a snow-covered walk.
  5. Feel your nose hairs freeze.
  6. Finish a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
  7. Read a book.
  8. Throw a snowball.
  9. Wear a hat and scarf.
  10. Hang Christmas lights (if not on a tree, somewhere).
  11. Go ice fishing.
  12. Light a candle.
  13. Watch a football game.
  14. Have an indoor picnic.
  15. Wear at least three layers.
  16. Enjoy a Christmas movie.
  17. Play a board game.
  18. Take up (or practice) a hobby.
  19. Take a sauna.
  20. Make a scrapbook.
  21. Wear a down jacket.
  22. Plan a vacation.
  23. Take a nap.
  24. Watch a comedy.
  25. Wear long underwear.
  26. Enjoy a spa day (DIY or professional).
  27. Knock icicles off the eaves.
  28. Pay a visit to someone.
  29. Host a party (even a little one, or a Zoom one).
  30. Send a care package to someone who needs one.
  31. Be charitable.
  32. Enjoy a basketball game.
  33. Visit a library or bookstore.
  34. Hang a calendar for the new year.
  35. Send holiday greeting cards.
Dad took this picture of Mom on the road outside their Minnesota home on January 2, a day when the snow dressed the trees in glorious crystal robes. Can’t you just hear the crunch of snow beneath Mom’s boots?

Sounds of Winter

  1. Hear the crunch of snow beneath your boots.
  2. Listen to the blizzard winds roar.
  3. Listen to a choir (preferably Christmas carols).
  4. Read The Night Before Christmas.

Flavors of Winter

  1. Eat chili.
  2. Catch a snowflake on your tongue.
  3. Make potato soup.
  4. Drink cocoa.
  5. Eat a broiled grapefruit.
  6. Make a batch of Christmas cookies.
  7. Make lefse.
  8. Enjoy a parsnip soup.
  9. Prepare a Monte Christo sandwich.
  10. Turn a frozen food into something delicious.
  11. Eat squash.
  12. Drink warm mulled wine.
  13. Eat chicken noodle soup.
  14. Drink champagne (maybe at midnight).
  15. Make a hot toddy.
  16. Drink a fancy coffee drink.

Scents of Winter

  1. Smell the pine scent of a Christmas tree.
  2. Bake gingersnaps.
  3. Make an all-day batch of rice pudding (with lots of cinnamon and butter).
  4. Make a winter bonfire.

Welcome winter, friends, or it may turn on you. Any ideas Mom and I might have missed? Please share in the comments.

I bow to you

My namaste view.

On my way to yoga practice this morning, three deer bounded across the road in front of me. While saluting the sun, a couple of fish put on a show of jumping out of the water. Their wings spread wide, a couple of turkey vultures soared above us yogis.

I spent an hour this morning doing yoga on the beach and admiring the fauna. (I also flicked a couple of wormy worms off my yoga mat, which might be considered more contempt than admiration, but let’s not focus on them.)

Any exercise outdoors can be beneficial, but for me, outdoor yoga in particular is rewarding. We begin by sitting still and breathing. This grounds me in any locale, and when I am sitting on actual ground and breathing fresh air, it’s even better.

And a beach as a location for just about anything can’t be beat. A lot of people imagine a beach as their happy place. Sand, soft and solid at the same time. Waves lapping on the shore. Unremitting sunshine. Maybe a little breeze. A beach offers all four elementsearth, water, fire, airour yoga meditation this morning had us meditating on our gratitude for these elements. It was refreshing, even more cleansing than a good shower. For an hour, I wasn’t thinking about work or grocery lists or housekeeping to-do lists. I was thinking about the bigger picture of the earth and my small place in it. A awesome place to begin thinking about gratitude on the day before Thanksgiving.

The beach upon which I pondered my place in the universe is on Lake Travis, near Austin, Texas. Most of this man-made lake is rimmed with rocks, nearly impossible to traverse. But the water level is unusually low, revealing this bit of sandy shore.

A drought causing low water is bad news. But I found a shred of beauty, even in the bad situation.

This pandemic may be like that. Maybe you’re celebrating Thanksgiving in an odd way because of COVID-19. It’s not usual or maybe not welcome. But maybe there’s a bit of beauty to be found.

Never skimp on roses.

When I returned to my home after yoga, there was a knock on the door. I flung it open, and there stood a masked deliveryman holding a colorful Thanksgiving bouquet, a gift to myself to decorate my holiday table even if it won’t be decorated with some of my favorite family members.

I am wishing you a moment of peace to find reasons to be grateful before the big holiday. May you find beauty and grace.