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9781250247636

(Click on the photo to order from the retailer of your choice.)

Don't just take my word for how great this book is, check out what Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, and BookPage have to say.

And if those sources didn't tell you enough, how about this review from the New York Times (!), this story from The Lily, or this tweet from Secretary Clinton: 

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Given that we are currently #SaferAtHome, I've been making the podcast rounds. Give a listen to Zestful Aging, where we talked about just doing it,  Mama Bear Dares, where we talked about the importance of local government, and/or The Upstate Regular, where I talk about our county's COVID-19 Challenges. 

NEW: I did an online reading for the Princeton Public Library and talked a little bit about what local government is facing right now. If you've wondered what I look like at a reading, give it a gander.

NEW NEW: The Hillary Clinton story continues...


Izzy Bird, a memory and a loss

This is only a little bit about Isabella. It is a lot about loss.

Yesterday, on the 75th anniversary* of the bombing of Hiroshima, I spent some time going through my photos of the morning I spent there. The entire trip to Japan was a trip of a lifetime, mind, and I hope to be lucky enough to go again and retrace Ms Bird's footsteps into Hokkaido, but Hiroshima was something else entirely. I am certain that you can't go there and not be changed.

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Our approach to the city from the Inland Sea.

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From a first-person narrative collected in the museum.


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Folded cranes in honor of Sadako Suzaki, who was two at the time of the bombing but would die ten years on from radiation poisoning. 


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The only structure left standing for miles in any direction. This river was full of bodies. 

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It was right about here that I had to have a bit of a sit-down and just cry. Our tour guide was telling us stories of parents trying to find their kids and vice-versa. And I couldn't help but imagine what that must have felt like, especially since my kids were half a world away at the time. And while this kind of sentiment is not my default setting, the land here remembers and wants us to remember, too.
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A little Tai Chi on the riverbank.


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Even as somber as the place is, people are still people. There is lightness and silliness always -- and there are always Japanese teens who make this exact gesture in every single picture I took.

I was going to close yesterday's post about Hiroshima with something profound, I'm sure. Or, at least, something about how I hoped to get there again and live out my Isabella Bird fantasies. I never got around to writing it, though. No good reason. It was one of those days where other projects to priority and then it was bedtime. 

When I woke up this morning, I learned that J. Scott Van Der Meid had died. We went to college together. When my Scott and I got married, J. Scott was a groomsman. We hadn't seen in each in person for years -- life is like that sometimes -- but we remained connected by those invisible threads that develop in some relationships. You stay connected in ways you wouldn't imagine. For example, one of the lecturers on the Japan trip was one of J. Scott's friends from Brandeis and we all had a good laugh about the smallness of the world.

J. Scott and I planned to meet up during my Japan trip last May -- coincidently, he was there to visit his husband's family** and do some work for Brandeis -- but we couldn't figure out how to wind up in the same city at the same time. Japan was like a second home to him and I'd already mentioned that I wanted him to be the Ito to my Isabella, if only virtually, because two grown adults, one of whom who has a real 9-to-5 job,*** cannot get months off to wander around together but can definitely text. 

There's just never enough time, you know?

Here's where I should write the profound thing that sums this all up. I've got nothing. Only this: tell the people in your life who are connected by those threads how much you appreciate them, even if you haven't seen each other in forever. Do it today. There is only now.

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* "anniversary" makes it sound celebratory, which is not my intention.

** one of my favorite J. Scott stories involved his then-boyfriend-now-spouse and a penis festival, which is a thing in Japan. 

*** him, not me.


Izzy Bird, at last

Isabella is in Estes Park - or as she puts it in the letter to her sister “ESTES PARK!!!”
Those three exclamation points are important. “They mean everything that is rapturous and delightful — grandeur, cheerfulness, health, enjoyment, novelty, freedom…I have just dropped into the very place I have been seeking, but it everything it exceeds all my dreams.”*
She’s living in a log cabin, which is raised on six posts, and has a skunk’s nest** underneath it. It’s near a small lake and there is frost every night. The ranch is owned by a Welsh couple,*** “who laugh with loud, cheery British laughs, sing in parts down to the youngest child, are free hearted and hospitable, and pile the pitch-pine logs half-way up the great rude chimney.”
The food is delightful. Her bed has fresh straw in six bug-free blankets. But best of all is the view. “The scenery is the most glorious I have ever seen, and is above us, around us, at the very door.”
Before she learned about Estes Park, locals tried to convince Isabella she should head to Colorado Springs because Estes Park would be too hard to access**** and that the season was over. But, she says, “In traveling there is nothing like dissecting people’s statements, which are usually colored by their estimate of the powers or likings of the person spoken to, making all reasonable inquiries, and then pertinaciously***** but quietly carrying out one’s own plans. This is perfection, and all the requisites for health are present, including plenty or horses and grass to ride on.”
Speaking of horses, tomorrow will be all about them.
 
* For the record: I don’t know that I have ever been as excited about anything ever.
** seems sub-ideal to me but the heart loves what it loves
*** from Llanberis, which is probably pronounced “York” or something.
**** I mean… it kinda was.
***** “holding firmly to an opinion or a course of action"

Izzy Bird, a step back

Isabella has given up on ever making to Estes Park. Dr. H packed up the wagon and they are traveling to Longmount, from which she’ll find a ride to Denver, then New York City, then home.*

The weather during the trip to Longmount isn’t helping her mood. “Instead of the delicious atmosphere of yesterday, I found intolerable suffocating heat, a BLAZING (not BRILLIANT**) sun, and a sirocco like a Victorian hot wind.” Both she and the good doctor are feeling poorly, but trudge on regardless.

Longmount is also known as the “‘Chicago Colony,’*** and it is said to be prospering, after some preliminary land swindles. It is as uninviting as Fort Collins. We first came upon duct-colored Frame houses set down at intervals on the dusty buff plain, each with its dusty wheat or barley field adjacent, the crop, not the product of the rains of heaven, but of the muddy overflow of ‘Irrigation Ditch No. 2.’”

She and Dr. H check-in to the St. Vrain Hotel,**** which is named after the St. Vrain River, without which none of this would be possible. The hotel is full of black flies but has tea, which is a great treat because Isabella has been without it for two weeks. She talks with the landlord, “a jovial, kindly man,” about her failed Estes Park plan.

“Estes Park and its surroundings are, he says, ‘the most beautiful scenery in Colorado,’ and ‘it’s a real shame,’ he added, ‘for you not to see it.’”

A couple of hours later, he’s found a hired horse for Isabella and two young men who plan to go up the next morning. Isabella’s hopes aren’t high but agrees to give it a whirl.

What continues to amaze me is how all of these arrangements feel contrary to what I know of women’s life at that time. The idea that an unmarried woman would travel alone with men who are strangers to her in the 1870s is hard for me to wrap my head around. Was it okay because she was middle-aged? British? It was the West?

* If this is what actually occurred, this would be a short book.

** emphasis hers.

*** https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/chicago-colorado-colony

**** (in separate rooms!)


Izzy Bird, smartness

Isabella is staying at the Hughes’ house, at the moment. This is, of course, before Mrs H died, etc. Our Isabella has some observations about life in the Colorado territory.

“One of the most painful things… is the extinction of childhood. I have never seen any children, only debased imitations of men and women, cankered by greed and selfishness, and asserting and gaining complete independence of their parents at 10 years old. The atmosphere in which they are brought up is one of greed, godlessness, and frequently profanity. Consequently these sweet things seem like flowers in a desert.

“Except for love, which here as everywhere raises life into the ideal, this is a wretched existence. The poor crops have been destroyed by grasshoppers over and over again, and that talent defiled here under the name of ‘smartness’ has taken advantage of Dr. H in all bargains, leaving him with little except food for his children.”

After a lengthy description of all of the work they all do — the three women (Mrs H, the Swiss girl, and Isabella) patch clothes and make shirts while Dr. H reads Tennyson to them or they are baking and cleaning and canning — Isabella goes on about ‘smartness.’

“This is not Arcadia. ‘smartness,’ which consists of over-reaching your neighbor in every fashion which is not illegal, is the quality which is held in the greatest repute and Mammon is the divinity. From a generation brought up to worship the one and admire the other little can be hoped.”

Ouch, Isabella. And just wait until she finds out who the president currently is….*

 

* Yes, I know. She’s very much dead. But can you imagine her response?


Izzy Bird, the Hughes family

Isabella is back in the lower canyon and still at the Chalmers. She has a cautionary tale to offer about the Hughes family, who we met earlier.

The story “indicates who should NOT come to Colorado.” Hughes is the son of a successful physician in London and he was a partner in a thriving practice in “the second city*” in England. He started to show symptoms of pulmonary disease, someone mentioned Colorado to him, and he fell in love with the idea of “being able to found or reform society on advanced social theories of his own.”

Mrs H is “charming and lovable… Both are fitted to shine in any society but neither has the slightest knowledge of domestic and farming details. They arrived at Longmount, bought this claim, rather for the beauty of the scenery than for any substantial advantages, were cheated in land, goods, oxen, everything…everything has failed with them, and they they ‘rise early, and late take rest, and eat the bread of carefulness,’** they hardly keep their heads above water.

“A young Swiss girl, devoted to them both, works as hard as they do. It is the hardest, least ideal struggle that I have ever seen made by educated people.”

There are six in the family and the children, Isabella says, are delightful. But the hard work is wearing on them all. “They consider their mother in all things, going without butter when they think the stock is too low, bringing in wood and water too heavy for them to carry, anxiously speculating on the winter prospect and the crops, yet withal the most childlike an innocent of children.”

Isabella kept up with the family after she left Colorado. Mrs H died a few days after giving birth, leaving her husband with five kids under the age of six, which makes me tired to just think about. Dr. H gave up on the county and moved to “one of the sunniest islands in the Pacific, with the devoted Swiss friend as his second wife.”***

 

* Pretty sure this is Birmingham, where the air was so thick at this point in time, you could chew it.

** not sure what she’s quoting. Anyone?

*** I know.


Izzy Bird, Storm Peak

After the horses are found, Isabella saddles up. They continue trying to find the trail to Estes Park.*

After four fruitless hours, Chalmers goes off in search of the trail he just knows is there. He “returned rejoicing… soon, sure enough, we were on a well-defined old trail, evidently made by carcasses which have been dragged along by hunters. Vainly, I pointed out to him that we were going north-east when we should have gone south-west, and that we were ascending instead of descending.** ‘Oh, it’s all right, and we shall soon come to water,’ he always replied. For two hours we ascended slowly through a thicket of aspen, the cold continually intensifying; but the trail, which had been growing fainter, died out, and an opening showed the opening of Storm Peak not far off and not much above us, though it is 11,000 feet high. I could not help laughing… His wife sat on the ground and cried bitterly.”

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So they turn around. Mrs C is thrown from her horse, which is followed by the mule’s girth strap breaking (which flings their supplies everywhere), which is followed by Mrs C’s girth strap breaking, which flung her to the ground again. At the outlet of the trail, they start a fire, have some bacon and bread, and spend two hours searching for water. What they find is a muddle that has been “trodden and defiled by hundred of feet of elk, bears, cats, deer , and other beasts, and containing only a few gallons of water thick as pea soup, with which we watered our animals and made some strong tea.”

Thus fortified, they trudged four hours back to the Chalmers’ cabin.

“Yet, after all,” Isabella sums up, “they were not bad souls; and though he failed so grotesquely, he did his incompetent best.”

 

* Spoiler: they do not find it.

** Those who grew up in Pittsburgh will recognize this method of navigation.


Izzy Bird, a tall tale

Isabella did not make it to Estes Park that day. Instead, around dusk, they had to struggle up a gulch and emerged cut and bruised, scratched and torn.

“Poor Mrs C was much bruised, and I pitied her, for she got no fun out of it as I did. It was an awful climb. When we got out of the gulch, C was so confused that he took the wrong direction, and after an hour of vague wandering was only recalled to the right one by my pertinacious assertions acting on his weak brain.* I was inclined to be angry with the incompetent braggart, who had boasted that he could take us to Estes Park ‘blindfold;’ but I was sorry for him, too, so said nothing.”

Eventually it gets too dark and they are too tired to go on. They bed down in the open under snow flurries. They do have a fire. Isabella makes a pillow out of her inverted saddle and sleeps soundly.

Despite Isabella suggesting that Chalmers hobble the horses for the evening, he does not do this. When the crew awakens, the horses are “merrily trotting homewards. I saw them miles off an hour ago with him after them. His wife, who is also after them, goaded to desperation, said ‘ He’s the most ignorant, careless, good-for-nothing man I ever saw,’ upon which I dwelt upon his being well-meaning.”

They have no water, by the way, because the canteen lost all its contents when the mule fell.**

And then Isabella made her wildest claim: I have found the stomach of a bear with fully a pint of cherry stones in it, and have spent an hour getting the kernels; and lo! Now, at half-past nine, I see the culprit and his wife coming back with the animals.”

Seriously, Isabella? You ate cherries from the belly of a dead bear? I call BS.

 

*I can only imagine what this sounded like.

** somewhere in here, the mule fell. I missed it.


Izzy Bird, Bumptious Chalmers

Isabella is on the move. Today’s letter to her sister is titled “Nameless Region, Rocky Mountains, September.” It seems, she says, “farther away from you than any place I have been to yet.”

The scenery is giving Isabella joy. It is “glorious, combining sublimity with beauty, and in the elastic air fatigue has dropped off from me. This is no region for tourists and women, only for a few elk and bear hunters at times, and its unprofaned freshness gives me new life. I cannot by any words give you an idea of scenery so different from any that you or I have ever seen. There is an upland valley of grass and flowers, of glades and sloping lawns, and cherry-fringed beds of dry streams, and clumps of pines artistically placed, and mountain sides densely pine clad the pines breaking into fringes as they come down upon the ‘park,’ and the mountains breaking into pinnacles of bold grey rock as they pierce the blue of the sky.

“This is view to which nothing needs to be added,” she says. “It is magnificent, and the air is life giving.”

What isn’t bringing her joy is “the stupidity and pigheadedness of Chalmers.”

First, their saddles are insufficient to their needs, with rotting straps, a broken girth, and too many quilts beneath. The horse carrying their packs should be one they ride; the one Chalmers is riding would be better suited to carrying packs.

Second, after a four hour ride, Chalmers couldn’t find the trail to Estes Park. They know roughly where the town is, mind, but can’t figure out how to get there.

“Chalmers, who had started out confident, bumptious*, blatant, was ever becoming more bewildered, and his wife’s thin voice more piping and discontented, and my stumbling horse more insecure, and I more determined that somehow or other I would reach that blue hollow, and ever stand on Long’s Peak were the snow was glittering. Affairs were becoming serious, and Chalmers’s incompetence a source of real peril …”

Will they make it? Find out tomorrow!

 

* a word that needs to come back in fashion.