THE MATRIARCH by Susan Page

“At the time of her death she had been largely out of the public eye for a quarter century. What caused her, the wife of a one term president, to be not only heralded as a great first lady but loved?” son, George W. Bush

No matter your political leanings, Barbara Bush seems to have a universal appeal. She is tough and loyal and oh-so relatable.

I must admit I’ve harbored some envy for our 41st First Lady. She’s feisty and strong-willed and it seemed everyone around her admired her for it. As a member of the not-overly-sweet club of women in the world, it seems I prickle those around me more than arouse admiration. How does she do it?, I’ve often wondered. How does one fully embrace the life of familial matriarch while simultaneously speaking her truth, maintaining worldwide appeal?

Journalist and biographer, Susan Page, captured many of the things we adore about Bar (as she was nicknamed.) But the lovely first lady, with the ever-present string of pearls, held nothing back during Page’s interviews with her toward the end of her 92-year life.

Her relationship with Nancy Reagan has been a well-known feud. Backstabbing and public slights – the tawdry things reminiscent of Reagan’s tv career more than political position. Barbara doesn’t mix words in describing their ongoing struggle until the bitter end.

Discussing Nancy was something I assumed would be a part of this biography. But an unexpected part of the book came toward the last half. The difficulties Laura Bush had in developing a relationship with her strongly opinionated mother-in-law. The way in which Barbara interfered (…made helpful suggestions…) with the raising of her many grandchildren. The rules she laid down for each grandchild staying at her house during those summers in Kennebunkport, Maine (ie: Breakfast is served between 5-8am. If you miss it, you make your own.)

Reading about these difficulties didn’t diminish my respect for Barbara Bush, but it did let me off the hook just a little. Strong-spirited women have unique obstacles in life. Sometime those hurdles are cleared elegantly and without distress. But more often than not, feelings are hurt, relationships are broken if not severed, and a wake of turmoil is left behind the words and actions. Barbara suffered these difficulties like anyone else. At times she swallowed her words for the greater good. But many times she let opinions loose and had to suffer the unwelcome consequences and apologies later in life.

In the end, this made her even more relatable to me. She was gregarious and funny. She was also flawed and awkward. Ultimately, her fierce heart for her family came first and foremost. She was a fighting mad mama bear when her husband or children were unfairly crossed.

This biography is a good overview of the life of a first lady straddling the sedate role her generation championed and the opinionated aspects of her basic personality. We all walk through that confusing jungle at times. It’s nice to know the woman with a hearty laugh and a self-deprecating humor, stumbled and angered sometimes, but always loved without reserve.

Five stars.
The Matriarch, by Susan Page

Pacific Pots and Plants

I have two new loves in my life: Pacific Natural and a funky new euphorbia plant. (Well actually, I guess it’s three new loves because I crushed hard over this new terra cotta pot.)

I have really been enjoying this book lately. Maybe I should take a step back and say I am really enjoying the Pacific coast lately. The weather, the vibe, the aesthetic. California is agreeing with me.

Reading through this beautiful book brings about a sense of calm mixed with a renewed interest in entertaining. Scott and I both enjoy having people over to our home and now we have the added ‘room’ of our backyard. Jenni Kayne speaks straight to our al fresco style of entertainment.

Additionally, Kayne writes of eating seasonally. Getting to know California seasons has been like learning a new language, it’s so unlike our Midwestern roots. But we keep watching the fruits and vegetables that seem to come and go from our local markets and are making mental notes of when the best time is to buy each of them. And boy oh boy are we ready to visit some local farmer’s markets this summer! 

Simple and elegant – two unlikely partners that marry so well together.

How cute is this S’mores to go hostess gift?? Handmade and thoughtful. (Not to mention yummy!)

My new plant buddy is an Euphorbia xylophylloides. It’s flat leaves and funky growth pattern spoke to me as I walked past it in the garden center. I was a little worried about its yellow/orange tips until I read that’s a sign of new growth happening.

I thought it would look nice in a terra cotta pot but when we wandered over to that area, this rockstar stood out to me.  It’s hard to see how big it is, but it’s a good size. I think it will look great on our fireplace hearth – standing out against the white brick. We looked and looked for a pricetag but eventually just gave up and took it to the register. We purchased all of our things and lugged it all to the car.

Scott checked the receipt that said the pot was on sale for $12 – we couldn’t believe it. We headed BACK inside and picked up the remaining two pots to use somewhere else!

I love it’s terra cotta legs and Spanish style!

This succulent cactus was in a nursery pot of course. I set it up outside to transfer it to its new rockstar terra cotta pot. I thought I’d be able to lift it as a whole out of the plastic pot and into the new pot. But when I started picking it up, every.single.one of the individual ‘leaves’ fell onto the ground.

Succulents have such small roots but I thought this was one big plant with individual ‘branches’. Much to my surprise, they are each individual – autonomous – plants.

I picked each one out of the mess of dirt on the ground and laid them out into height-sized piles. I then started burying them in the new pot of dirt – tallest in the middle and working my way out. In the end, it worked much better so that I could ‘design’ the style of the overall pot. (I also kept a few back to start another pot of these unusual succulents.)

I think Jenni Kayne, author of Pacific Natural, would be proud of my purchases. #pacificproud

PLACEMAKER by Christie Purifoy

I am currently reading this beautiful book by Christie Purifoy, Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty and Peace. The book releases in mid-March 2019 and will be a soothing balm for our overly-stressed, multi-tasking souls.

Placemakers is for the home lover. The outdoor admirer. The family gatherer. The story collector. For the past decade I have felt very strongly that one of my biggest roles in life is to create a welcoming home. My regret? That I didn’t embrace this role stronger when my children were young. Perhaps that is a natural occurrence for many of you as well. When your babies are young, there is so much clutter and lack of sleep. As they mature, there seems to be nothing but running and doing. Concerts and sports events. Home tends to be a quick landing spot between the lines of your to do list.

But the older I get, the more I realize the respite that is home. It has been my passion to create a soothing and calm place for Scott to land after a 12-hour day at work. Even in writing that line I am aware of how genteel and old-fashioned it sounds. Perhaps even egotistical. I balk at the pollyanna nature of it, but I know in my heart that it is the mission I have been given. Does this sound anti-feminist? I certainly hope not as I stand here a proud feminist. We too often acquaint progressive women’s rights with doing and becoming. But the true essence of the movement is to create space where women can become anything they wish to become – which does not exclude the role of supporting and encouraging those we love. But it isn’t all done just for my family. Beauty and consistency makes my own soul feel calm and settled.

We plant seeds or saplings in neat rows. We prune limbs, and we tend the soil. We do not make the trees, but we make a place for them.

I did not have a word for the role I play until Purifoy so elegantly termed it: placemaker.

When I was first married and moving into our apartment (my first home ever away from my childhood home and college dorms), I found great pleasure in creating a homey home. I remember one of my friends came over for the first time and as she left she commented: “Your home doesn’t look like you just moved into it. It looks as if you’ve lived here for years.” I considered this a huge compliment – and still one of my favorites.

For friends and family to find a place that evokes feelings of warmth and welcome – that is my greatest joy. I am (…to a fault and the butt of many jokes…) constantly tweaking things around our home. And now, with the California weather, our backyard is merely an extension of our physical house. I am invigorated by dirt and the care of each plant and tree. I grieve when they die and I feel empowered when I can help to save them.

Making and tending good and beautiful places is not a dishonorable retreat. It is a holy pursuit. We were never meant merely to consume the gifts of creation. We were made to collaborate. We were made to participate. This book is an invitation to reconsider your own relationship to the ground beneath your feet and roof over your head.

I expected this book to be a pretty addition to our coffee table. How surprised I’ve been to find the girth of insight and encouragement I’ve found between its pages. A book that I could probably ‘whip out in a day’ has become a slow and methodical read – filled with underlined words and many pauses for reflection. And sometimes shouts of ‘YES!, that’s exactly how I feel!’

You can pre-order the book now. I strongly suggest you rush to your favorite book-selling site to grab one for yourself.

Meanwhile, I continue to read…

THE AMERICAN SPIRIT by David McCullough

I recently finished this collection of speeches by David McCullough.
His love for history is contagious and reignites my own B.A. in History. His many graduation commencement speeches are all laced with the plea for the graduates to continue to study history. Quoting American historian, Daniel Boorstin:

Trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.

I have often been frustrated with the way history is taught in public schools. History is not a litany of facts and dates. History is merely a series of contiguous and interlacing stories. Beautiful stories of overcoming threatening odds and even stories of abject failure. But all the stories of history feed into the place and time that we find ourselves in today.

‘What is story?’, McCullough asks his crowd.
Essayist, E. M. Forster elaborates:
If I tell you the king died and then the queen died – that’s a sequence of events.
If I tell you the king died and then the queen died of grief – that’s a story.

In light of the contentious political scene today, I needed a reminder that the American spirit surpasses time and presidencies. I was taken aback, however, at this quote from Margaret Chase Smith, the senator who stood up to Joe McCarthy in the 1940/50’s:

“I speak as a Republican,” she said on that memorable day in the Senate. “I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American. I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of…fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.”

In this book of speeches, McCullough pulls heavily from many of the excellent books he has written. I recognized many of the references. Of all the McCullough books I have read, his account of the life of John Adams is by far my favorite. McCullough made me fall in love with our second president and increased my admiration for his long-suffering wife, Abigail. Their love story is amazing to watch unfold through the pages of his biography.

The American Spirit will reignite your love for country, American history, and rhetoric. Or at least that was the effect it had on me…

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW, by Amor Towles

A very entertaining, albeit somewhat long-winded, novel.

I’ve seen the buzz about this book all over my instagram. I ordered it months ago from Book of the Month, but only recently sat down to give it my full attention.

SYNOPSIS:
In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is accused of being an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal and sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin in Moscow. He’s given a 100 square foot attic room. While his world is drastically reduced, his experiences are vastly expanded around him in this bustling, luxury hotel – located in the midst of tumultuous change in Russia.

MY SUMMARY:
While I am sorely lacking in Russian knowledge, the book kindly led me along in its color and history. While Russian history played a backdrop to the storyline, the real characters took place within the confines of the Metropol. Elegant actresses, humble seamstresses, demonstrative chefs and shy but inquisitive young children. Towles does a brilliant job of creating characters with vastly different backgrounds and personalities, but all intricately linked to our main character, Count Rostov, His Excellency. The Count is genteel and elegant – making this a soothing book to read in the midst of so much ugly politicking in our own current world. His afternoon tea, thoughtful gifts and Old World self-deference was refreshing and endearing.

As with many other storylines in literary history – Eloise, for one – the setting of an elegant hotel will never disappoint. Towles thoroughly…arguably too much at times…develops each character so that their motives and personalities are well known to his readers. There were times he might have lost me, but the storyline kept me in its clutches. And I am so thankful that it did.

Perhaps it is simply because I read it during rainy, wintery days here in California, but A Gentleman in Moscow seems like the perfect cold winter’s day relief.

January reads…

I had a lot of fun in 2018 – the Year of Reading. I read a variety of genres and soared through books each month.

But this year – I’m taking it easy. I’m simply reading when I have an opening for it. People who read 200 books a year… I don’t know how they do it. It really boils down to the fact that when I’m reading, I’m NOT doing other things I also enjoy in my spare time. So 2019 will be a much more relaxed reading year.

That said, I was able to read three books in January:

I have talked about Becoming, an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at Michelle’s early life as well as the progress toward and during the White House.

I have not talked about Reese Witherspoon’s book. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it but my overall impression was that it was a bit of a ‘throw away’ book. I was raised by a strong Southern woman so the subject was not foreign to me. But the recipes and traditions seemed rather prosaic. The writing style was saccharine and too over-the-top. I love Reese as an actor and admire her work as a producer and an advocate for women. Writing this book might not have been her best work.

And lastly, Harry’s Trees. What a fantastic book. It hooked me quickly and kept me on the line the whole way through. What a beautiful celebration of books and nature and great love.

To every story we bring the story of ourselves.

This book celebrated the freedom of forgiveness. The adventure of reading. The beauty of nature. The cost of holding on to self-perpetuated ‘truths’. The ripples of redemption. And as with every good story, it contained an enchanting touch of magic.

Get a book. Reading solves most things or at least assuages the heart.

I would highly recommend Harry’s Trees.

What did you read in January? Do you have a pile of books to read in February or are you letting them come to you as they will? I’m currently reading A Gentleman in Moscow and am really enjoying the storyline. I mean…how many great stories have happened within the confines of a grand hotel?!

I am forever grateful for the sheer enjoyment of being transported by books. My admiration for writers knows no bounds.

 

BECOMING by Michelle Obama

“No matter your political beliefs…” is a phrase I have come to loathe. It invariably is followed by a veiled political view.

That said, politics can be pushed aside when reading Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming.

The book gives a strong foundation from Michelle’s childhood to the breadth of work she did before ever entering the political spotlight. She and Barack were truly people who came from hard-working families and rose to the highest seat in our country.

But Michelle also dished. She seemed to understand that people want to know what it’s like to have a husband largely absent from family life. What was it like to campaign and hear all the negative things said about your husband?! How did she balance travel and kids and the transition to – and then from – the White House? She describes some of the things found in a presidential motorcade which was TOTALLY interesting to me! Things like, oh, a canon in the car! Or the blood type of the sitting president which travels with him should he ever need a blood transfusion. Whaaaa?!

I listened to this book via Audible. Michelle Obama reads it herself (which was like having her sitting in my living room telling me stories.)

I borrowed the first picture in this post from @becauseofthem because this scenario is what I imagined so often throughout the book. I would get teary-eyed and proud of America but then I would think, ‘What must it be like as a black child seeing their face for the first time in the White House?!’ It made me tear up every time I’d think about the historical moment that we witnessed as Americans together.

Easily a 5 out of 5 stars for this memoir. Michelle doesn’t disappoint when it comes to feelings and struggles she dealt with in the rise of and the creation of a spouse becoming a president and a wife becoming a First Lady.

Very interesting. Highly recommend. ……no matter your political beliefs.