Monday, September 14, 2020

On Beach Vacation, I Dream of Him—A Journal

Friday, September 11

When morning comes, a gold light suffused with scent of salt water greets me. The muffled  roar of ocean sounds just beyond the cottage on Seagull Way where I vacation for a week. 

It was never supposed to be like this, I think. This being alone on a beach vacation on a barrier island in the Atlantic. Last night winds whistled and thunder boomed. Nicknamed the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the Outer Banks in North Carolina is a stormy treacherous meeting place of southern and northern winds and water that shipwrecked many. 

I deserved to be with him today. It's his birthday, September, 11. He deserved to be here, taking in this time and place—surf and sky, calm now. I shake the feeling of wondering the impossible.

I sip my coffee on the deck. The news on my cellphone is more the same. Fires raging out West. A virus out of control. Riots in the streets. When people belittle and scorn each other, everyone—and everything—is corrupted.

I finish my coffee and slip on bathing suit and shorts, glance at the woman in the mirror. Not young anymore, but not bad. Oh well. Maybe when I get home, I'll join a dating site, forestall the loneliness, although how lonely is it to meet a stranger for coffee?

It’s a short walk to the beach, up a sandy path, across a golden windswept dune. Crashing waves with curled silver manes inspire the poet's muse. Although no poet, I find journaling therapeutic and the thoughts written here come to me later when I want to write, not when I feel forced to write. 

A couple strolls the water's edge, holds hands. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He wasn’t supposed to die. I wasn’t supposed to be alone. I dream of a strong man in my bed. I dream of him, walking the beach.

I walk toward the shore. Swirling around my ankles like a rite of redemption, the riptide's surprising force pulls at my legs, my toes dig in deep to keep me from falling. I breathe in where sky meets sea. It is suddenly very warm. Where have the years gone? This is my vacation, my beach vacation. I let it all go.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Pandemic Pause: A Writer Muses Time and Choices

Fall has always been a harbinger of new beginnings, a fresh slate. Schools reopen, churches return to normal services, community craft fairs and fundraisers abound. But this is pandemic life and for many of us this fall portends a continuation of staying home and limiting travel and activities. What to do with all this newfound time? As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote: "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." In this post, writer Marilyn Gilpin muses her choices when the 'cosmic pause button' is pressed. Please welcome Marilyn back to the Women's Writing Circle.


There have been times in my life when I wished for a “pause” button. Even before there was such a thing. Sometimes, I felt overwhelmed by life, responsibilities, deadlines. I needed time to catch up. 

This was especially true in college. There were always papers to write. Projects to complete. Rehearsals, exams, classes, campus job. There was never a moment when nothing was due. I wanted to stop the world for a little while until I finished a few things. I pleaded with the universe:

“Just let me finish this report before I get a new assignment.”

“Just let me memorize my lines before the next rehearsal.”

“Just let me pass this test before I have to start on that project.” 

After college, there were other pressing matters. Work always got in the way of the important stuff. I have several bookcases filled with hundreds of books that I haven’t read. When will I ever get the time?

Many years ago, I started a list of films that I missed when they were in the theatre that I hoped to catch when they came on television. That list is now a dozen pages long. How will I ever see them all?

Suddenly, the cosmic pause button is pressed.




I cancel all vacations, trips, theatre and concert tickets, outings, luncheons. I can’t go anywhere. 

The world has stopped. There are no appointments, no deadlines.




I should be thrilled, right?

Well, yes I am.

But I am overwhelmed again. Too much free time. Too many choices.

Which of my 639 books to read first?

Which of 297 films on my list to watch tonight?

The cosmic voice says: JUST PICK ONE!

What are you choosing now that time is on your hands?

Marilyn Gilpin has been an avid reader and writer for as long as she can remember. Some of her pieces have been published in The New Sweetwater Reporter, the newsletter for East Nantmeal Township in Chester County, Pennsylvania. She is a passionate gardener, theatre lover, and student of piano and has contributed to numerous Women's Writing Circle read arounds. So far, Marilyn has made some progress on her lists: she has watched Hidden Figures, and her reading has included two classics – East of Eden (John Steinbeck) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving). Contemporary works include Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and A Marriage Story by novelist Tayari Jones. She lives in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania with her husband, Michael, his many guitars and their four cocker spaniels. 

(Photos courtesy of Marilyn Gilpin.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

'Rodham' Review: Hillary Alone In a Man's World

Anyone who knows me knows I have long been an ardent supporter and advocate of Hillary Rodham Clinton. In the spring of 2008, while she was vying for the nomination against Barack Obama, I saw Hillary when she campaigned in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I remember thinking how petite she was clad in a white suit…how beautiful and articulate and well-spoken. Like the rest of the crowd, I gave her a standing ovation, not once, but several times. When she became the Democratic nominee in Philadelphia in 2016, I felt, at long last…at long last. I even worked phone banks for her and heard Chelsea speak in West Chester.

Reliving the 2016 election, even now, leaves me feeling something akin to grief, of what might have been―our first woman president. Usually, I can’t read about the election, even Hillary’s own retelling in What Happened. It’s too upsetting, made more raw as the 2020 election looms and once again a man is at the top of the ticket. But pandemic summer left me the time to read Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s fictionalized account of Hillary’s life. 

The ‘Hillary’ in Rodham is much like I imagine her: strong, logical, emotionally intelligent in every way…except when it comes to Bill Clinton. 

My favorite scene in the novel takes place in 2005. After Hillary has turned down Clinton’s three marriage proposals and understood that he is a sexual predator and, by his own admission, a man unable to remain faithful, she has struck out on her own and been elected Senator from Illinois.

Now in her late fifties, she accepts his dinner invitation. He is twice divorced in Sittenfeld’s telling, a tech billionaire living in San Francisco.  

Laying out her best lacy underwear,
Hillary imagines having sex with him again, even nurturing hopes that maybe, just maybe, she could chuck all her political aspirations―by now she has waged one unsuccessful bid for the presidency―and settle down with her self-described soulmate. As she enters Clinton’s luxurious apartment with a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay and he makes them dinner―he is now a vegan―she again feels the chemistry, the charisma that is undeniably his and which no man, before or since, has equaled. 

As they sip red wine and she basks in how handsome he looks, without warning, Clinton goes off about another woman, a woman he even considers having a child with, a woman who is young, a woman who, like all the women Bill Clinton ‘dates’, is under the age of forty. It’s as if Hillary is merely an audience for his narcissism, his complete lack of empathy for what they once had as law school students and her decision to follow him to Arkansas. It is here she unleashes on him, calling him not just a narcissist, but a "spoiled, selfish child." This is the Hillary that perhaps many of us wanted, or the Hillary that Sittenfeld, a writer of fiction, crafted to give her protagonist that hook that so many strong and intelligent women could identify with―loving, and eventually, leaving a narcissist, albeit one who haunts their dreams for years afterward because in some twisted way he understood them.

"You know," I said, "if you're trying to humiliate me, I am ashamed of myself. But not for thinking you'd find me attractive. I'm ashamed because you've given me so much evidence for so many years about what a piece of shit you are, and once again, I ignored it."

In Sittenfeld’s telling of Hillary, she is a woman alone in a man's world, a woman whose love of politics and making a difference in the lives of many, results in becoming what she calls “an honorary man.” Except for Bill Clinton, Hillary is deemed by most men too “opinionated for a girl” a phrase that rings true for many of us who heard this and whose sexuality was diminished for going toe-to-toe with a man. Hillary dates, but the price of her ambition and her smarts is that in Rodham, she never marries and remains childless.

As a writer of fiction, as well as memoir, it's fascinating that Sittenfeld created her own Hillary out of the myriad books written about her life, as well as Hillary’s own memoirs. But surely, even this technique, while based in research, this melding of fact and fiction, strains credulity of an iconic figure whose life is so well known that a fantastic revamping of her story feels unsettling, at least to this reader. 

Sittenfeld’s earlier novel American Wife, based on Laura Bush, was a fun read because her name had been changed, and there was a modicum of detachment from the real Laura Bush. While I have no problem with writers “breaking the rules of writing," I was a bit nonplussed throughout the reading of the 492-page Rodham, with twisting history, right down to Bill Clinton running against Hillary in 2016 and people screaming “Shut her up!” at his rallies. (Is there no difference between Trump and Clinton?)

"Sexism claims were considered sour grapes…yet was this not the starkest proof?" Hillary muses of the chant. She even calls Clinton and asks him to make his supporters stop. A cutthroat politician and perhaps even a Hillary-hater, himself, he refuses.

Written in first person, Rodham channels Hillary in a way that felt, at least to me, real. Sittenfeld is a clever writer. Of the press, the fictional Hillary thinks: They constructed elaborate narratives based on scant evidence. They were also self-righteous and self-congratulatory...they assumed that in other fields, they could make salaries many times what they currently earned, but they believed journalism was a noble calling. Hillary goes on that while many don’t bathe for days on the campaign trail, they delight in picking apart her looks. 

This version of the Hillary who never married Bill Clinton leaves us wondering if she might have found her voice long before the 2016 election? Reading interviews with Sittenfeld after the novel was published this spring, I noticed that Sittenfeld admits she never met Hillary and probably doesn’t ever expect to. What?

An appearance by Donald Trump at the end of the novel strains credulity. Although Sittenfeld presents him as a pompous buffoon with his own undeniable brand of charisma, her decision to make Trump a supporter of Hillary for President in the 2016 campaign borders on annoying and ludicrous. Trump is also a sexual predator, but as Hillary notes, people, even women, shrug and say they, “don’t care.” How true! But it is the cruelty with which Sittenfeld depicts Bill Clinton as a predator and narcissist that most disturbed me. We all know how Gloria Steinem once observed that the Clintons had a strong marriage because they were truly help mates with each other…that he should be so despised and vilified by the fictional Hillary at the end of the novel felt like another disrespectful treatise on the real Hillary’s decision to stay with her husband.

In reading about Sittenfeld and her process in writing Rodham, it struck me that maybe this was the author's way of coming to terms with her grief about 2016 and the woman who would be who now remains a stark reminder of pervasive sexism in both men and women. 

As Rodham confesses about her desire to be president: 

No man has run because he hoped to gain entry to the highest office of power on behalf of an entire gender.  Women and girls were half of the population and we deserved, as a basic human right and a means of ensuring justice, to be equally represented in our government. Yes, I was me, Hillary, but I was also a vessel and a proxy.

Monday, July 27, 2020

A Writer Moves From Memoir Back to Fiction

Most of the blog posts I wrote these last few months had a pandemic journal subtitle. It's a Dog's Life ... July and the Simple Life ... a pandemic journal.  I'm thinking I shouldn't attach the a pandemic journal anymore to these blog posts. There's no end in sight to this crisis and a pandemic journal could run for years—a reality show that endlessly spins and spins. Everyone agrees on that—the part that there is no end in sight. The despair is deep and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth if you focus too much on it, although the stories people tell me of how they are living are filled with such courage and honesty I will continue to blog about that. It always surprises me how much grit people evince, the ones who are quiet, especially, the ones whose modesty and acceptance teach me how to live through this time. 

Oh, I'm just a writer. That’s what I say when people ask me what I do these days. “Oh, I’m just a writer ... you know.” Weeks revolving around deadheading petunias and reading novels on my Kindle fill the time too, but it is writing which absorbs me during this pandemic. The oh, I’m just a writer part really doesn’t let people in on how much work writing is, though. How many hours it takes. How writing is something that you either do, or you don’t. Sometimes, there aren’t enough hours in the day to write all you want to write.

As the pandemic rages, I've been thinking about Ava Stuart, the heroine in A Portrait of Love and Honor. The people she’s met, her memories of when she and Jay first fell in love, their son who would grow up and never get to know the man his father was. 

I read an interview with novelist Elizabeth Strout after she reintroduced Olive Kitteridge in Olive, Again, a book I read this summer and loved, as I did Olive Kitteridge. In this interview in The New Yorker, Strout says:
"I never intended to return to Olive Kitteridge. I really thought I was done with her, and she with me. But a few years ago I was in a European city, alone for a weekend, and I went to a cafĂ©, and she just showed up. That’s all I can say. She showed up with a force, the way she did the very first time, and I could not ignore her."
Like Olive, Ava has much to say as she ages, a woman alone. So, I'm  putting my completed memoir on the backburner and writing fiction again. I feel free, letting Ava tell her story, instead of me. 

Although I have written two memoirs, who can ever truly analyze oneself? I have begun to believe it is impossible, especially the older one gets, and considering the times in which we live, where there are more questions than answers. And how does one write with clarity about people with whom one is intimately involved, without in some small measure, at least, betraying confidences and making the whole business seem trivial through endless dissection? I know ... changing names, changing identifying characteristics, creating compelling scenes, all tools of fiction writing, anyway. I did this in both my memoirs and loved the process, but it seems a new story needs telling from another point of view.

Ava can speak about writing, because she is a writer. She can speak about growing old because it has been years since Jay died and her loneliness and her solitude are worth exploring. She’s acerbic and sometimes judgmental. Regret, disappointment, it's all there, and she doesn’t have to worry if her grown kid likes what she writes, or if an old boyfriend might sue her for libel because she reveals his inadequacies, and her own, at the same time, which can be sad. There's a freedom and energy in letting Ava tell her story. It’s not a watershed moment in one’s life, like chronicling an abusive childhood, hiking the high trails above the Pacific, grieving the death of a child, performing a unique job like trampoline artist ... just the ordinary days of a woman searching for meaning.

Although even when I wrote fiction people thought it was memoir, this move back to fiction feels freeing, gives me energy in the morning to write. It's all good, as people say. Writing is a force during this dark time. What could be better than that?

Monday, July 20, 2020

It's a Dog's Life—A Pandemic Journal

The old adage, it’s a dog’s life applies. Or, in my case, it’s a puppy’s life.
I post pictures on Facebook ... puppies taking naps, puppies playing with squeaker toys, puppies begging to come in the house. Everybody loves puppies. My son got a dachshund/beagle puppy in March. Although her name is Goose, we call her the 'diva' because she is fearless and loves showing off. She’ll make one flying leap off my deck, airborne for a brief, sweet moment, before landing on the lawn and racing after Lily, my yellow Lab. I spent July 4th weekend entertained by the diva dive bombing off the deck.

My older son got a German Shepherd puppy on my birthday, July 11.We drove all the way out to Ohio to get Rin, which is short for Rin Tin Tin. 'Rin' means companion in Japanese, fitting since my son is a black belt in the Japanese martial art, aikido. This past Saturday, I spent the afternoon puppy-sitting Rin. All went well, puppy chomping on a chew toy and on Lily's ears until the neighbor started his lawnmower. It's crazy how fast a puppy can disappear. I raised two kids. How could I lose a puppy? I panicked until I realized she was under the deck. She remained terrorized under my deck for the next two hours. She’s a baby. Not quite nine weeks.

Both puppies nip at Lily’s ears. At seven years old, Lily wasn't prepared to be Mama to two upstarts, to herd them around the backyard, to have the upstarts hog the attention, to shamelessly prance off with her toys. That’s her lot lately, her life in pandemic world. 

Then there's my lot in pandemic world. Like most writers, I vent. The blank page serves as a sounding board, an 'in-house' psychiatrist. It had been three weeks without a dishwasher. The machine wasn't due for another week so when the plumber called Friday morning and said he had it and could he come by to install, I jumped. Absolutely! Two hours later, a young guy arrives. I met him outside, wearing a mask, one of those blue things the dentist wears. He looked at me, “Oh yeah, I have a mask in my truck. I should get it.” I felt like saying, yeah, you should. I was so thrilled to have my new dishwasher installed, I felt like it was Christmas so I didn’t say anything, not when he lay on my kitchen floor, huffing and puffing to take the old dishwasher out and wasn’t wearing a mask. Not when his ‘backup’ appeared about an hour later, another guy in his mid-twenties, wearing a bandana that covered his mouth but not his nostrils. Not when he asked me to sign off on the work order, asked to borrow a pen, and wasn't wearing a mask. 

After they left, I disinfected everything in my kitchen top to bottom. As I scrubbed away, I thought of Bukowski, who said, “If I bet on humanity, I’d never cash a ticket."

That's how I'm feeling lately. I’m not a person to police other peoples’ activities, or tell them what to do. I know the plot we’re all living. I get it. It's hard. But what's so hard about covering your face with a cloth? 

If our warped, vapid president would wear a mask, others might too. If the deranged governor in Georgia would enforce a mask mandate, maybe we’d be where Thailand is with little or no spread or infection and I could travel again. Our country’s lack of leadership has turned us into pariahs in the EU because our infection rate is soaring. Even Canada and Mexico don’t want us. 

I met two friends last week for a picnic lunch.
Ninety percent of the conversation revolved around pandemic world. One friend had, not one, but three, appliances conk out since this madness began. Another is heading to New England for a vacation. We’ll be doing a lot of take-out and barbecuing, she said. Some vacation, I think. Half the fun of a vacation is dining out, lingering over cocktails in an air-conditioned bar, eating a leisurely meal and not cooking. I'm going nowhere this summer, so I talked about the puppies. What else? You should see the diva, I joke.  It's a dog's life here in pandemic world.

There’s an excessive heat warning today. No outdoor pools open. Just Lily and me. I’ll be writing, reading and doing what I usually do to keep my sanity ... appreciate that I’m still virus-free ... at least for now. And, playing with puppies sooner, rather than later, no doubt. Oh, and running my dishes through the dishwasher again.


Monday, July 13, 2020

Pandemic Gardening and Nature's Eternal Lessons

Marilyn Gilpin

My garden has always been a haven. I can lose myself, or rather lose my cares and worries, when I am surrounded by nature. This escape has become so much more essential during these pandemic times. 

The news is almost all bad. There is the worsening health crisis, mismanaged at all levels, and the cavalier attitude about the virus of many of my fellow citizens. There are police killings, protests, vandalism, climate change, Hong Kong. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed to near despair.

So, I venture into my garden. Far from perfect, it is messy and chaotic, with so many weeds that I have redefined what a weed is. If it is not invasive, or if it flowers, it can usually remain. My little oasis is a stunning, elegant and delightful nook where tranquility reigns; peace prospers. My sunflowers don’t have covid; my hydrangea never heard of coronavirus; climate change hasn’t yet touched my maples and poplars. I find solace in the certainty that Nature knows what she is doing. Acorns grow into oak trees with no help from any human.

I learn patience while tending my garden. If my new clematis doesn’t flower, I am certain that it will next year. A garden’s needs are simple. If my morning glory looks wilted, I water it. If my astilbe looks dead, I examine it carefully for any sign of growth. Growth means life. If it dies, I plant something else. Nature has been growing things for millennia before I arrived. I get to be a caretaker for just a little while, choosing what to plant and where in my small corner of the world, but Nature is ultimately in charge. 

One of my favorite quotes is from the Talmud: “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers GROW, GROW.” It is such a comforting thought. I belong to the universe, and the universe has my back. 

This little pandemic will be a minor blip in the eternity of Nature, unnoticed by birds and rivers, trees and stars.

Marilyn Gilpin has been an avid reader and writer for as long as she can remember. Some of her pieces have been published in The New Sweetwater Reporter, the newsletter for East Nantmeal Township. She is a passionate gardener, theatre lover, and student of piano and has contributed to numerous Women's Writing Circle read arounds. She lives in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania with her husband, Michael, his many guitars and their four cocker spaniels. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

July and the Simple Life—A Pandemic Journal

Reflecting on how to reinvent, to conjure new dreams within the framework we are living, is pandemic life. I prize solitude, but some days, I feel weariness as time hangs heavy like the humid air outside my window. Friends tell me they also grapple with finding meaning. Independent as they are, this time challenges their self-sufficiency. I feel very isolated, one woman said. Another walks in the woods by herself, calling it her outdoor church. 

Purple hydrangea, blue-green hosta. When I cannot garden, I write. When I cannot write, I read. Before the heat of the day, I take Lily for a drive. A goal, a purpose, a little adventure, anything, consumes my days. At the park, Lily and I follow the path leading to a church cemetery. Small American flags by granite tombstones flutter in summer breezes. One headstone reads. You left us far too soon. Ours is not to question why. Only God knows.
When I return home, my copy of Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author, aviator and champion of women's concerns, catches my eye. Its cover of sea water and sand appeals on a hot summer day. I page through it. One passage stands out. Lindbergh writes: I mean to lead a simple life, to choose a simple shell I can carry easily—like a hermit crab. But I do not. I find that my frame of life does not foster simplicity. She goes on to lament the endless commitments, duties and errands of wife, mother and friend. Although the book was written more than sixty years ago in another time and place, the words resonate with philosophical meditation. 
Now, with this pandemic, many of us face fewer commitments. In Julys past, I traveled. Now, my dream to see the world is on hold. Publishing my new memoir feels less urgent in a Zoom-world. I taught in public libraries and held workshops. Not such a good idea right now. Virtual lacks intimacy. 
Simplify means to breathe easier, reduce stress. Buying clothes? Not needed except for the basics. Doing more with less. Lilies on a pond and sunlight in green water offer reflection this summer. My simple shell and its bare beauty tell me to cherish this strange time. As Lindbergh writes: "In my periods of retreat, perhaps I can learn something to carry back into my worldly life."

July is bittersweet. I was born in July and memories abound. I remember childhood July 4th celebrations. We kids decorated our bicycles with red, white and blue crepe paper. Playing cards attached by clothespins to the spokes of our wheels made a neat flapping sound as we pedaled in parade to the elementary school playground and open fields of Queen Anne's lace. Potato sack races, awards for the best decorated bike, my mother in her bright yellow sleeveless dress, all pass in the rear view mirror of time.
This July a friend emails. I want a refund on 2020, she jokes. Haha, me too, I respond. Except, there are no refunds on time. Time is what we make of it. If ever there was a moment to carry the simple, bare shell, this is it, I suppose. The neighbor and I chat about our love for dogs and her longed-for getaway with family, coming up this week. I don’t care if it rains. I just need to get away, she sighs. No restaurants, no beach, we have a pool at the house, we’re cooking each night. The simple is bliss.
Each day brings new challenges, new relationships, new memories. I look up at a summer sky with billowy clouds and take it in. Family, friendship, faith, moments of being. The tides shift and change. Nothing is permanent. I carry my simple shell. I remind myself to appreciate its bare beauty with gratitude and acceptance.