Spooky Books for October Reading

The first of October is the official start of two things: Halloween season and, much as it pains me, all things pumpkin spice.  While I eschew all that pumpkin spice business, I love a scary read in the autumn. If you do, too, let me offer some suggestions to see you safely through October, when the nights turn cool and you read with the covers practically over your head. 

For scary, creepy books you can’t do better than the two classics, “Frankenstein,” by Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”  I like “Dracula” especially, because it is set in Romania and I have been there, and they drink a lot of slivovice, and I have been there, too. 

There is a scene in which Dracula scurries diagonally across a vertical wall, in the mist and dark, and it makes my heart race every time I read that passage.  It terrifies me so I can’t stand to watch the squirrels out my kitchen window as they skittle up my neighbor’s house, at an angle and frighteningly fast.  

I swear, I swoon in fear, I’m so triggered. 

Wilkie Collins is supposed to be the fellow who gave us our first mystery novels, elevating the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe from the short form. Collins was a contemporary of Dickens and his books are described as long and that right there is why I have never read him. However,   I return to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” stories I first read under the covers with my Girl Scout flashlight. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a good one, too. 

“Rebecca” is, at its core, a ghost story.  But not one of those chain-dragging ghost stories.  The ghost of the real Rebecca haunts every character in the novel in unique and unsettling ways.  I have read this book several times, but always with several years in between readings. With some distance I find it surprises me and upsets me in all the darkest and spookiest of ways. 

Agatha Christie can take up a good portion of your October reading, but I find I prefer to partake of her work by way of Masterpiece Theatre.  I first read her books in my early adolescence but they didn’t hold my attention long.  I much preferred Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

I must have been introduced to “The Hounds of the Baskervilles” in junior high.  Is it possible that was required reading for an English class?  I don’t know, but it horrified me because I was at the time afraid of dogs, even though I hate to admit it.  So, the notion of gigantic creatures howling their heads off somewhere out there on the moor sent me into spasms of delicious fear, safe as I was, still under the covers reading while my little sister slept across the room. 

Junior high was also the time I was introduced to H.H. Munro, who wrote under the pen name, Saki.  We were assigned “The Interlopers” and that is all I am going to tell you.  Saki is the O. Henry of the disturbing twist ending, and after reading “The Interlopers,” I devoured all his short stories in quick succession.  In particular, “The Open Window” galvanized me for days, even though each element of the story, taken alone, is benign and ordinary. But that ending.  


You may note there is no Stephen King on my list, but if you adore him, you go right ahead and read him.  I managed to read “Cujo,” which makes no sense, considering I just shared my fear of dogs.   I read most of “It,” and I’m just going to say, he writes so well and at such length I am too terrified to finish his stories.  My poor heart can’t take it, not really.  

So, I return to Shirley Jackson, my final suggestion for you.  And again, I knew her first in junior high or high school.  We were assigned the short story, “The Lottery.”  You have read it, usually assigned at the same time as “The Rocking Horse Winner,” and “A Rose for Emily,” although she didn’t write these two. 

For a quick and spooky read, try Jackson’s novels,  “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” or “The Haunting of Hill House.”  So classic.  So satisfyingly eerie.


On the first Sunday afternoon that seemed like fall, just barely like fall, I was awash in a longing for my nieces and nephews to still be little and flopped all around my living room while we watched “Halloweentown.”  It was about as gentle as a scary movie could be, starred Debbie Reynolds as the matriarch witch in the family, and the kids’ mother was also a witch, but she denied her powers. 

There was a mystery of some sort that took the whole family to solve, and some lessons on claiming who you are, and doing good. I tried watching it by myself the other day, and it just wasn’t the same without little ones in the house and popcorn all over the floor.

Now I am curating my list of scary movies to watch this month when I tire of reading scary books.  I am partial to black and white movies when it comes to terrifying myself.  What they lack in explicit gore and bad words, they make up for in the creep factor.  “The Night of the Hunter” is one such movie.  Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters star, and it is one of those slow burn movies that gets your heart rate up, and right now. 

I put “Cape Fear” in the same category.  The original, released in 1962, is also in black and white, with Gregory Peck as a small town lawyer whose family is terrorized by the ex-con, Max Cady, who has been released and seeks revenge.  Watch this one first. 

Then, scoot over and watch the remake, filmed in 1991, starring Nick Nolte and Robert DeNiro.  There are plenty of horrifying surprises that will make you jump, but pay attention to a scene between DeNiro and Juliette Lewis, the teenage daughter.  It is so subtle and so frightening I can honestly say my blood ran cold.  Still does when I think of it. 

Another remake of a movie that might be worth a gander is the 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” starring a young Donald Sutherland.  All fatherly now and selling us orange juice, in the early days of his career he had that certain something, not a creep factor, exactly, but something unsettling, that made me like him and loathe him and like him in just about any part he took on.  “Body Snatchers’ has a great supporting cast, too, with Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy. 

If you like this kind of thing, then set aside some time to watch the “Alien” franchise.  The best, in my view, are the first two, “Alien,” and “Aliens.” Sigourney Weaver as the much beleaguered Ellen Ripley is a pretty perfect image of a fierce and iconic hero. 

Anything Alfred Hitchcock will work for a couple of hours of spookiness.  “Psycho” and the “Birds” are classics for this time of year, but let me also suggest “Rope.”  It is set in one single room, on one day,  and Jimmy Stewart is a bad guy.  I know, I know, that alone is mind-bending.  It is as much a psychological thriller as anything, and fun in an upsetting way. 

John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” was industry-shattering when it came out.  I was working at Western Kentucky University at the time and I drove to Nashville to see it.  I was thrilled at all the Bowling Green street references and the mention of all the small towns in the area.  Carpenter’s father had been a professor at WKU and John used real southern Kentucky places in most of his work.  “The Fog,” manages to name just about every street in town as the miasma creeps closer and closer to Adrienne Barbeau, his wife at the time.  “The Fog will work in your list of scary movies. 

My siblings and I stumbled across “Soylent Green” on a rainy and boring Saturday afternoon, and it lives on in the McDonough Canon of Film. Right this minute I am drinking from a Soylent Green coffee mug my nephew, Wesley, sent me. It is not so much scary as dystopian, and maybe a little cheesy, but don’t say that in front of us.  We still shout the last line of the film at each other when we run out of things to say.  

And then we laugh and laugh like hyenas, but spooked hyenas, even so.

Autumnal Equinox

This is a day of symmetry. Mid-afternoon, 2:21 p.m. Central Time, the sun will float directly above the equator and from that moment until deep December, it will be fall. That moment of solar hovering will signify the autumnal equinox, with the day and night of equal duration.  Tomorrow, the days shorten, the nights lengthen, and  we spin toward winter, but so gradually we hardly notice. 

Then, one October morning we open the door and the lawn is rimed with frost.  We leave the house for errands, in shirtsleeves as usual, and halfway to the car we realize it is chilly and return for a sweater, a jacket.  Flowers fade and hang their heads, hydrangeas turn a camel  brown, and look sturdy as a camel, only to turn to paper in our hands.

Leaves rustle high in the trees, some ready to release, happy in the natural order of things.  The sidewalk is blanketed in gold as ginkgo trees say goodnight.  Oak leaves hang on, like sleepy tots, overtired and cranky but desperate not to miss anything.  They will drop and you will rake, again and again, never quite finishing the job.  Sometime after Thanksgiving the first snow covers the stragglers, and you ignore what’s left until spring. 

Maples, the true stars of autumn, will blaze and glimmer, and we will comment on the palette, nodding sagely as we discuss the impact of drought or rain or summer heat on the vibrancy of color.  We will mispronounce “foliage” but no one notices.  Down here everyone says it the same way.  To do otherwise is to put on airs.

The sun slants at a most pleasing angle. Has been settling into its autumnal slouch for a few weeks now. The golden hour glints more golden, the blue hour seems more the shade of the Crayola crayon, Midnight Blue, darker, somehow, softer and sadder.

Mornings arrive later.  Sleep is restored. 

Below us, past the equator, our friends will be preparing for spring.  In their hemisphere Christmas arrives in summer, and to contemplate such things confuses and confounds us.  The idea of Santas in beards and red shorts confounds most of us, too. Autumn must be crisp and bright.  Winter cold.  

Even when autumn is warm until November, when winter plays hide and seek,  refusing to deliver on childhood dreams of snow and sledding, when shrubs bud too early, we will have some frosty mornings, at least some little bit of snow, enough to remind us to wind the stem of our internal watch, the one that marks, not hours, but years gone by, warm kitchens, grandmothers baking, perhaps.  Or boisterous kids with red cheeks and running noses getting in one more football play before the light fails completely. Frozen hands on handlebars, too stiff to safely steer toward home. 

We bring the fall and winter in, nestled in our sweaters, our coats, our woolen hats and mittens.  Maybe they, too, seek a little warmth in spite of the cold that defines them. Summer stays outside, playing past bedtimes, making a racket.  Summer wears us out.  Autumn knows we need our rest. Winter insists we conserve our strength.  

Autumn whispers to us, subtle but sure.  We might not hear it today at exactly 2:21 p.m., but if we stay attentive, we will hear it. There is wisdom to be had, a centering and calm, if we stay still long enough to listen.

Hospital Visits, 1960s Style

I was telling a friend about the Southern tradition of Sunday hospital visits, back when hospitalizations were week-long affairs for the arrival of babies, or surgeries or tests and observations. And I say it was a Southern tradition, but maybe it was more universal than that and I have attached too much regional significance to be strictly accurate. 

My parents held great debates on whether to make such visits, weighing their sense of obligation against their longing for Sunday naps.  But we were in the habit of going to church each Sunday and then to one of the grandmothers for lunch, and they thought, well, since they were still dressed up probably they should go. 

But if they were going, they shouldn’t piddle around,  because my mother’s feet hurt and she wanted out of those shoes.

I remember these discussions clearly because our Sunday afternoon fate hung in the balance.  We would get a little more time at our grandmother’s while they made their calls, and that was fine by us. We might have held secret discussions of our own, wondering if we might squeeze in a whole afternoon without parents bugging us about “school tomorrow,” those dreadful, dreadful words. 

My grandmother, on the other hand, loved such visits and sometimes it was she who had to make her hospital rounds as she rushed Sunday dinner and shooed us out the door. In those days, if she was lucky and the prayer list long, she might get to hit both hospitals in town. 

She loved gory and disgusting procedures and would pump the poor bedridden patient for the details she would later spill for all and sundry at canasta on Monday.

I imagine the Sunday hospital patient was eager to tell her all about it, just for a little attention,  since it was not uncommon for the room to be full of well-wishers talking to each other and not the poor patient in the hospital bed. 

I was indoctrinated in the practice early, when my grandmother sometimes dragged me along.   I hated it. I almost never knew the person, but that didn’t keep my grandmother from pushing me toward the bed to say hello.  As more people arrived I circled back to a corner and watched as whole parties and gabfests erupted, the poor patient clearly wanting only ice chips and to be left alone. 

Or worse, the visitors would gather around the foot of the bed with an expectant air as if the one in the bed was the afternoon’s entertainment. What was the thinking back there in the Sixties, the Seventies? But maybe, in a way, going to see someone in the hospital was a kind of entertainment, really, what with blue laws and bad afternoon TV.

The best hospital visitors I ever saw were my sister-in-law’s parents.  My father, nearing the end of his life, was again in the hospital and they arrived early on a Sunday afternoon, not to visit, but to check on him.

First they poked their head in the door to see how things were, then, holding hands, they took a few steps inside the room, refused  to sit down, said they just wanted to say hello and see for themselves how he was doing.  They asked if we needed anything, gave their good wishes, and took their leave.

It was such a classy move, warm and considerate, that I haven’t forgotten it.  In fact, in moments of boredom I have dissected it, deconstructing every move.  For example, the hand-holding.  While they were an affectionate couple, I believe it also served the purpose of keeping each other in check, to help remember and reinforce the mission, so that if one of them  got too chatty, the other could lead them gently toward the door.

They smiled, asked concerned questions, maybe three or four, expressed their love and concern, then floated out on a cloud of goodwill.  And they generated such goodwill, we almost wished to call them back. 

Now, of course, even major surgeries and procedures might not require more than a couple of days’ stay.   And Covid limits and sometimes prohibits visitors altogether.  Weekend stays are rarer now, unless they can’t be helped. We designate visitors as we continue Covid precautions, and in most hospitals it is one visitor per customer. 

For the duration. 

And as long as it the visitor of your choosing, you might find that one is quite enough.  

Shakespeare’s Son

If you are looking for a good book to read now that the kids are back in school and the garden is producing in a more manageable fashion, let me suggest to you one of my favorites of the summer, if not the year. 

“Hamnet,” by Maggie O’Farrell, is work of fiction, but linked to the most famous writer of all, William Shakespeare, although his name is never mentioned.  He is referred to as the Latin tutor, the husband, the father, and that is all. 

But we know. 

This is a sweeping book of small domestic intimacies.  We are at home with Shakespeare as a charming but distracted young man as he navigates the mine fields of a difficult and often cruel father. He meets Anne—Agnes, as she is referred to throughout the book, and it may in fact have been her name—a woman older and wise in the ways of nature, herbs, and falconry, and he is quite quickly a goner. 

But first, we meet their son, eleven-year old Hamnet, running down a flight of stairs. 

He is frantic, looking for his mother, his grandmother, anyone who can help him, for his twin sister, Judith, is sick. O’Farrell takes us through the streets and alleys of Stratford as we follow his running feet, and before we have turned the third page, we care about this child, his desperately ill sister, and before the chapter is done, we care about the family that enfolds them.  

We care because this is a fine novel of small things, the vagaries of marriage, the difficulty of in-laws, the joy and desperate love for children.  And it is a novel of the plague. 

It surprises us, even as we sense a creeping fear that things will not be well for the children in this family.  We have read the subtile of the book on the jacket cover:  “A novel of the plague.”  

But it surprises us all the same. 

O’Farrell moves around in time in a way that deepens and enriches both the story and the characters.  We are in Stratford in the late sixteenth century with Hamnet and his sister and family, and we are also given a supposing of Shakespeare and Agnes’ early meeting fifteen years earlier.  Again, much of this is imagining, but the reader senses much research went in to the writing of this book, and the author provides such a steady hand we willingly go along. 

All of this book is a delight to read, from the feel of the beautiful cover to the gorgeous use of language to the dramatic setting.  

And then there is the flea.

That flea takes us from a glassblower in Murano to the sickbed of a child in England, and it may be worth getting this book for that journey alone. The circuitous route, the happenstance of it all was fascinating and heartbreaking and something to wonder over. 

The story, of course, will have a sad end, and we know that going in.  But such tender writing, with such depth, gives us to know the writer cares about the reader as much as she has fallen in love with the characters. She writes as if she is wise and loving grandmother holding our hands while the heartbreaking truth of things unspool before us.  

Which makes this such a moving and satisfying read. 

It is a skillfully crafted book.  It is fiction, a broad imagining of events six hundred years ago, events in a family with what is now surely the most famous name in literary history.  As with all good fiction, though, it feels true and evokes in the reader emotions and memories and  curiosities to ponder long after the last leaf of the book is turned.

The Nature of Things

The mornings are nice to sit outside, drink coffee and contemplate the world, one’s life or even the laundry piling up in the basement.  I was doing all these things a couple of mornings ago, when a tiny rabbit sidled along the walk, hesitated, sniffed the air, then headed for the hostas by the back door, disappearing for good. 

I don’t take much notice of the rabbits in my yard, especially since I learned to forgive them their lapin ways, eating all my tomato plants as they do.  We just coexist now in an easy acceptance of each other and I feel all  Beatrix Potter when I see them, then quickly return to my own thoughts, my own business at hand. 

But that morning I sat up and felt a swell of tenderness, whispered, “oh, you made it.”  And  I was one with the universe for a moment.  

I hoped this little fellow was one of a fluffle my young friend, Sterling, and I unearthed by accident a few weeks ago.  She was handling the shovel, I was giving directions, as she dug a shallow hole in the flowerbed along my side porch.  We had just pulled up a lemon verbena that threatened to take over and one I was tired of.

The ground is unusually soft there, which is fortunate, because Sterling didn’t have to dig too hard to turn the earth.  On the second scoop of the shovel, she gave a little cry. 

There was a baby bunny wriggling and squinting and squirming not four inches below the surface.  We came closer and no, not just one.  Three, four baby rabbits, maybe more. 

To her credit, Sterling took it much better than I.  It horrified me a little.  But she asked quietly what we should do, and then, not waiting for a reply, began gently covering them back over.  We placed the pulled up verbena over the space and hoped for the best. 

It is a myth, I found out, that mother rabbits will not return to their babies if they sense human involvement.  Friends reassured me they would be fine.  My sister and brother-in-law have a rabbit maternity ward in their backyard, with rabbits routinely giving birth close to their house, and they watch the mothers feed their babies, toss them out of the little burrow to clean the nest, then toss them back in again.  

But still, I was afraid to check on my little boarders.  I just couldn’t do it. 

So, I was happy to see the hopping little thing hide in my hostas.  Later, I screwed up my courage and checked the hole, but not before researching how long baby rabbits stay in one.  It is a short period, two weeks, or so, and that time had easily passed.  They were all gone.  So gone from the place, if I hadn’t known they had been here, I would never have known they were there.  I planted my garden phlox as I had intended weeks ago, and marveled at it all.

I have friends who grew up along side creeks and woods and country lanes, or had grandparents they visited regularly in the country.  They talk about the Gaines woods, or Anglin Falls, or “the narrows.”  Sometimes they use words like “shoals.”  They speak lovingly of mud. 

And I don’t completely get it.  I like nature, but I like it manicured, neat.  Maybe it is the fecundity of our region, all that undergrowth and dampness, everything at certain times of year just on the verge of rot.  I will hike with you, but let’s do it in the autumn, or a crisp winter day, when the path is clear, when we can see where we are headed, when the trees aren’t dripping wet for no good reason.  

I had a colleague from Colorado who came to Kentucky in her early twenties on the Greyhound bus.  She left a place of wide expanses and rocky outcroppings, slept through the prairie, and awoke with a start in Kentucky, all the green, the lushness, the closeness of our landscape.  She had the heebie-jeebies for a week. 

She soon appreciated the differences.  Out west the landscape forces us to look out.  Here, the landscape requires we look down.  Under things.  Look with specificity, find grandiosity in small wonders.  Move carefully.  Know the ways of rabbits, snakes, birds. Study bugs and bark, the fallen trees rendering back to earth.  

I try to learn from my nature-bound friends.  It is a long, long lesson.

School Supplies and Summer’s End

I remember going back to school after Labor Day as a child.  This may or may not be true, memory is an inconstant thing, but this is how I remember it.

There were swimming lessons late in August, lessons in the evening and we shivered in our damp towels on the ride home, the nights already cooling in a way they did not in July.  As I write this I wonder why lessons so late in the season, mere weeks before the pool would close.  It was the early 60s and the world was lousy with kids so maybe it was the only time there were slots open.

Regardless, my mother and her friend signed us all up for lessons, and I did passably well learning my strokes and holding my breath as long as my feet could still touch the bottom.  On the night of the final, the big test, with parents gathered around to watch us, we were to stand on the ledge of the diving pool, lean over with our arms above our heads in some semblance of a diving stance, then splash into the water and  swim the length of the pool without drowning, some poor lifeguard treading water for what seemed like hours, making sure we didn’t. 

I failed that test. 

Never jumped in, no matter how that lifeguard begged me, reassured me.  No matter the jeers from my brother, already in possession of his certificate. 

Not even when my mother’s friend marched up to her own daughter in a huff, because she was pulling the same stunt I was.  Not even when her little girl’s eyes widened as her mother hissed words is her ear and she dived in like a cartoon character doing a double take and swam like a maniac, her little butt stuck up in the air,  jiggling back and forth with her leg kicks, and everyone laughing.

Not even then.  

My humiliation wore off fairly quickly, because school would soon start and here I was in my element.  Not math class maybe, but English and current events, in which I learned I had many opinions, and then the social aspect of school.  Well.

This I was born to. 

But first it was about the school supplies. 

Mostly it was about the school supplies. 

It seems to me that we showed up at elementary school early one morning, our mothers squeezed into tiny chairs where they received some kind of instruction and a list of supplies for each of us.  At that point, not a moment sooner or later, we piled back into the car and headed for Ben Franklin. 

The lists were not so long back then, fat pencils and crayons, notebook paper and penmanship tablets, and always lots of begging for compasses and protractors, that last bit of equipment I never knew the purpose of.  Gum erasers, maybe a small ruler.

But just last week a friend of mine, a teacher,  was tossed into a tizzy, a bit of a meltdown, when she saw an advertisement for school supplies at one of her local emporiums. She knew what that meant. It’s not that she is oblivious, for surely she has seen the stacks of paper and legions of colored folders taking up the shelves that used to house pool toys and sun screen. 

It’s just that something about the end of summer, her summer, hit her between the eyes and she didn’t like it.  It broke her heart a little.  Broke every other teacher’s heart, too, with whom she shared her upset on Facebook.

It was a fleeting upset for her, I hope.   But anyone who lives by the school calendar feels her pain and commiserates.  Me, too. The end of summer used to be late August.  Not anymore.  

Summer calendars get filled in and marked and loaded down with things, obligations, work and chores and then one day, where did it go, exactly, all our lovely free time?

My life, since age six, has been ruled by the school year.  Every job I have had has been in an educational setting or in support of school aged children.  Even now, when I no longer have to report for duty, when I can travel anytime I want, I cling to fall break,  spring break and Christmas closings like a drowning man, mark them on my calendar still.   

And I am always sorry for summer’s end.  The idea of it, that freedom, even as I feel the tug and anticipation of a fully stocked Ben Franklin.

I will wait until later in August, because that is proper timing, and at such time I will buy new notebooks.  Pens.  A protractor.  And then, for summer, a proper goodbye. 

A New Kind of Hindman

 All this week I will be attending the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman, while sitting at my dining room table. I wouldn’t have planned to attend this year, except Sonja Livingston, an essayist and memoirist whose work I greatly admire, is on faculty and teaching in my genre, Creative Nonfiction.  

So, here I am. 

Or rather, here I sit, while she sits in her home in Western New York, and my classmates are sitting in theirs, or at the beach, or wherever they are spending this week in late summer.  There is no trudging up and down hills for meals and class, no  gatherings and in person evening readings.

There is no dinner bell that echoes around the mountainsides when it calls us to come eat or to attend a session in the May Stone building.  There is air conditioning here, in my house, a constant 72 degrees, except in the afternoon when I get hot and crank it up, or is it down, to 68.  Hindman is air conditioned, too, but it seems spottier, somehow, with all that walking and all the damp that hangs around windows and drips from the kudzu. 

Books are important at gatherings such as this, and we have a bookstore at our disposal.  The Red Spotted Newt, in Hazard, has a pop-up shop on campus, and we have the website to order all the books our virtual carts can hold.  The owner, Mandi Sheffel, is on campus for the few participants who are staying there, but she is sticking around for the rest of us, too, just like at a regular writers workshop, only we see her at a distance in a tiny Zoom window.  We can’t walk up and chat like we normally would.  But we also do not  thumb every book she has brought, picking them up, putting them down, flipping through them again, so maybe she is happy, at least, to have more pristine stock to offer customers.

It’s weird seeing old friends and complete strangers in their tiny Zoom rooms, these people who have bared themselves on the page, the ones we are to give feedback to, receive feedback from, the angst and the tenuous trust of that. But, somehow in Sonja’s hands, it works.  The group, too, does its part, jumping in and braving the process, and my only let down was this. 

At Hindman, after the first session  we walk back to the May Stone building for lunch.  This takes a while, as we meander alongside a wide meadow and then over the small foot bridge, and it is one of my favorite parts of the day.  Up ahead are little clutches of classmates, their heads together, still discussing the workshop we have just left.  Someone behind me has told a funny story and now I hear nothing but laughing, and I am sad I missed it.  

My pals and I walk slowly, reveling in another first day at the forks of Troublesome Creek, with a general sense of love and well-being and a mild wondering of what is for lunch.  The heat may be bothersome, but in a minute we will be snaking our way down the lunch line, searching for and finding old friends from other years,  with squeals and hugs and much shushing because someone we can’t see has just started grace. 

Hindman is different this year.  Was different last year, too, with serious discussions about if, and how, to carry on in light of the pandemic.  This year, there was no discussion of if to have it.  The work it seems to me, was directed toward how to have it well, and the week is off to a great start. 

It has been a few years since I have attended, but the draw of working with a writer I admire was too important to forego.  So here I am, new notebook, my good writing pens.  But I’ll miss some things, too.

I’ll miss the after hours conversations, the socializing, the landmarks that let me know I am almost there: Yoders, the Amish store on the outskirts of town where we buy bread and cookies, the Midee-Mart, on the edge of campus, the new concrete bridge over Troublesome that replaces the old one that created a deadman’s curve. 

And then the settlement school, nestled in the crook of the creek.  Whenever writers gather, there are words upon words upon words.   And they are the point, those words, and here we all are, together, sharing them.

How to Shop for Baby Now

There was a time when I went to baby showers content in the fact that I had shopped at the most exclusive emporium for baby goods.  I had been assured by the clerk who looked down her nose that my purchases were tasteful, useful and oh, so desirable for the new mother-to-be, and if they offered gift wrapping—which places like that always do — more the better. 

I then took myself off to the baby shower, relatively happy to play those silly games because for baby showers there is always cake in the shape of happy animals — rabbits or teddy bears, and I am a sucker for cake. 

Sometimes a slightly disheveled sister-in-law would bust in late, a giant package of disposal diapers under her arm.  The more spit-up she had on her shoulder, the bigger the package of diapers. 

I’d scoff a little to myself, reassured by the receipt in my purse, the one they put  in the little envelope, as if it, too, were a gift, because I couldn’t think of a more unimaginative present than diapers. 

A couple of weeks ago word reached me that my niece, Katie, was starting to panic, or at least getting a little anxious, as the birth of her first child loomed on a near horizon.  Her friends had thrown a virtual shower, with links to on-line wish lists, but still, there was so much she needed, or thought she needed, to feel prepared.  

And diapers were right up there with onesies.  There was something about having a shelf full of diapers in two different sizes the soothed and reassured her.  Ditto, onesies.  But that’s not all.

It has been twenty-five years since I have bought baby things, and it is nothing like I remember.  There are Boppys, round pillows for the baby to lounge on, and for something called “tummy time.”  When my mother thought the backs of our heads were getting funny-looking, she just flipped us over.  My sister turned her kids like pancakes because she wanted them to have ‘pretty-shaped heads,” the highest compliment our grandmother could give a child.

Then there are the bottle and pacifier boxes.  Katie’s sister, Hannah, and I went shopping last week and we looked for them because they were on the registry.  I had no idea what this was.  I worked out maybe they were sterilizing contraptions, which I understand for bottles, but not the pacifier.  If we spit one out in the dirt outside, my mother rinsed it off with the garden hose.  Inside, if water was in the other room, it got swiped across the leg of her pants. I saw the dog lick one clean once.

But no, the bottle and the  pacifier box are designed for the child to choose.  In each box is a collection of, let’s say, four different pacifiers, bottles.  The idea is to let the infant try them out and then somehow “select” the one they like best.

I fear these new parents may come to regret this early encouragement of choice, but what do I know?  Maybe a little more ease and comfort early on would have made us all a bit nicer, more tolerant of each other.  I know I act my ugliest when I am frustrated and powerless and not listened to, so perhaps there is something to it.

Katie is a practical sort, even so, and while she is enthralled with the idea of the baby choosing pacifiers and bottles, she is keeping it simple, too.  Her cousin, Alex, has helped in this department.  She has an eight month jump on Katie in the new mama department, and has been the go-to for what works well, what is a must-have, what is ridiculous, and what is the thing you need most at 2:30 in the morning when you have your first cry at the kitchen table. 

Katie wants socks the baby won’t kick off.  Alex says there are no such things. 

Katie thinks four swaddles are enough.  Alex, and every other mother out there, says no.

Katie just wants this baby born.  Alex, who went long, says, I hear ya. 

Katie and Troy are waiting.  It shouldn’t be much longer.  And of course,  it isn’t about any of this, diapers, swaddles, Boppys.   It is about this new little life and how it will ripple and ripple through our hearts, forever.  Onesies we can buy any time, and all day long.

Doing Battle with the Beetle

My good summer help is off the clock for a week or so.  She has church camp in Michigan and then some family time in Chicago, and my yard is beginning to miss her.  We set aside a few chores for her return, but now I think I may have to get after them myself.  My casual, happy little landscape theme is beginning to look like neglect, the kind your neighbors can call city hall about. 

Even so, when she returns there will be plenty for her to do. Because now is the time when, in all my summers,  I am bored with everything:  potted plants, the pepper plants, even most the herbs, save rosemary and basil. 

We were spared the cicadas, here,  and I will cop to being disappointed about that a little, but we are infested with Japanese beetles.  They have eaten the leaves on my young crepe myrtle, my calla lily—the leaves and flowers—and are making their way toward the basil.  

This I will not stand. 

Early this morning I inspected the crepe myrtle, the one I nurture all year because it replaces one I lost to an ice storm and is therefore precious to me.  I wish you could have seen it.  The sun barely up and it was an Amsterdam youth hostel up there on the leaves. Beetles everywhere, some cozied up to each other, you know, and something inside me snapped. 

I try to be gentle with, or at least tolerant of, the living creatures in my yard, but not this day.  I plucked off as many as I could before the activity alerted their little buddies and they took flight.  Then I gave the ones I caught a little spa treatment in a bowl of soapy water, and what happened next, well, it is between them, me, and my God.

Sitting here, telling you this, has me thinking about the balance of things, and I just looked up what kinds of critters rely on the Japanese beetle to survive.  It seems birds like them, in particular robins and cardinals, both regular visitors at my house.  I see them everyday.  Either they are lazy, there are just too many beetles to get at, or their palates are more refined than usual, because, again, beetles everywhere and procreating in my myrtle. 

Raccoons, skunks and moles like them, too, but these come with their own sets of troubles and I would not like to invite them into my habitat.  According to one source, Japanese beetles bring almost nothing to the party, except destruction.  We all know that guest.  And to make matters worse, the beetles weren’t even around here until 1916, when they were accidentally introduced in the New Jersey area. 

There are some plants that will deter them, mint being one, but I am not kidding, they have gotten into my grandmother’s mint, as well. But no, on closer inspection just now, I see the leaves of a weed nestled in with the mint is nothing but skeleton, the mint itself, unscathed. And lavender repels them.  Which is good news, because I have some of that I need to relocate. 

When Sterling returns from her travels, she and I will bolster the defenses against the Japanese beetles.  Strength and victory through deterrent.  Move that lavender into strategic positions, ditto little pots of Grandmother’s mint.  I much prefer this to early morning raids with bowls of soapy water.  But still.  I have Dawn.  And I am not afraid to use it. 

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