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A Meditation on Boundaries

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I-Screen by Dhruvi Acharya

I-Screen by Dhruvi Acharya

“Breaking Boundaries” is an expression that is usually meant to show freedom—crashing through a fence that prohibits expression. But there’s another side to boundaries.

And that’s “Holding Boundaries.”

The first boundary I recall is a low brick wall that marked the edge of the front garden of my first home in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England. At age four, I played close to the wall, and this was how I visited other children in the neighborhood: playing on the sides of the garden walls.

Once, my younger sister breached the wall to toddle after a fire engine. She was safely retrieved, yet my mother’s panicked reaction to my sister’s boundary violation is the second part of the memory.

This week, a huge fence is going up in Washington D.C., supposed protection for those participating in President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. This physical barrier can deter some behaviors, but it cannot do anything to erase the danger we face.

I started feeling this way last winter, when doctors around the world pleaded for people to wear face masks. Across the country, mask adherence is spotty, and a number of people say that not wearing a mask is a defense of their personal freedom. Last week, when seditionists stormed the US Capitol, members of Congress escaped and huddled together for hours in a small, undisclosed location. Six Republican House members refused to wear masks. Three members who wore masks caught COVID-19, quite possibly from one of these people. Because the boundary wasn’t observed by everyone, it didn’t work.

“Holding boundaries” is an expression used in counseling practice and self-help books and sometimes causes an eye roll. For me, it means following my gut, rather than giving in to pressure. Holding a boundary might mean saying “Sorry, I can’t come to that party,” or “I don’t want to get involved in that argument,” or as simple “no.”

The U.S. Constitution is packed with laws, and garnished with amendments, that are meant to protect the country from corrupt government and ensure its stability and articulate the rights of citizens. However, none of it works if people don’t pay attention to it. Vice President Michael Pence knows that President Trump did all but throw him to a mob, yet he won’t exercise the Constitution’s 25th amendment, which could remove a president unfit for duty. And what of the 147 Republican lawmakers who won’t accept the certified results of the 2020 election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris? Who won’t accept… the law?

The challenge with boundaries is that you can’t yoke people into them. We hold them because of the people we are.

About nineteen years ago, I bought a painting called “I-Screen” by an Indian woman painter, Dhruvi Acharya, who had a one-woman show in Baltimore. I remember settling down on a bench and staring at the vast amount of huge paintings, looking for the one that spoke to me most.

It was a big red painting, 50 inches square, that called to me. In “I-Screen,” a mature woman with a peaceful expression appears to be defending herself against a stream of angry words coming from a younger woman. The screen in her hand is a simple vegetable grater.

As years passed and life tested me, I began to understand the story within the picture. The loving elder lets the words come at her, but she protects herself. She reminds me to stay true to myself.

The Unraveling Myth of Johns Hopkins

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Johns Hopkins University Library

Have you heard? Another historic myth is being pulled apart like a sweater with moth holes.

Johns Hopkins, the great Baltimore businessman and founder of a university and hospital, wasn’t quite the social reformer that history told us. Recently, Hopkins historians shared news that he was a slave owner, rather than an abolitionist. And this controversy has made me reflect on my own journey to Baltimore and my relationship with Baltimore.

It started back in the 1980s, when I was a high school senior contemplating college. I knew I wanted to leave Minnesota, but I wasn’t sure where I should go. Geography was not even taught at my public school in Minnesota, so confusion was perhaps natural. When faced with a choice, I wondered: was Baltimore a Northern East Coast city, or was it a proper part of America’s South?

The Hopkins statue in front of the university

Baltimore lies south of the Mason-Dixon line, a geographic boundary from the 1700s that was later used to mark off Confederate and Union sides during the Civil War, it wasn’t entirely clear to me. The South was less appealing to me than the Northeast, but Baltimore, Maryland, was where I got the most out-of-state scholarship money. And I was desperate to leave the Midwest.

When I arrived at the Baltimore airport for the first time, I felt welcomed by a bus driver, but I could only understand a few of his words. So, it was the South! It took me at least a month to be able to translate the vowels of many locals. By the time I went home for Christmas, I didn’t hear anything strange. Furthermore, my own accent had changed to the point that one of my sisters said I sounded like a ‘snob.’ I didn’t care. By then, I was very excited about the place I’d landed: Goucher College, a historic women’s college in Towson, a suburb just north of Baltimore.

One of the first surprises at Goucher that another Indian-American student with my first name had recently graduated. It meant that “Sujata” was easily spelled and pronounced throughout the college—a big difference from Minnesota, where I was tormented for having a foreign name. Heubeck Hall, my dormitory was diverse, with women from around the world, and, like me, immigrant backgrounds in the United States. The Black students in my dorm had mostly graduated from Baltimore and Baltimore County high schools. It was easy to make friends with them as anyone else—a big difference from high school, where my name, skin color and national origin made me an outsider.

Even though I had good friends and caring professors during two years at Goucher, my career focus shifted toward a writing career, so I transferred as a junior to Johns Hopkins to study in the Writing Seminars department. At Hopkins, I was embraced into the heart of a very international, multi-racial circle who socialized in Gilman Hall. Here, every Black student I knew either came from out of state, or the African continent. This was very different from Goucher.

I regret not thinking about this discrepancy during my time at Hopkins. I thought all that battling  racism meant agitating for the end of apartheid in South Africa by pressuring Johns Hopkins University to divest its stock portfolio. I didn’t think about the informal apartheid in Baltimore that sent white kids to private schools, lest they go to the “terrible” public schools. I was aware that the university was set on land that had originally been a plantation owned by wealthy Catholics, John and Harriet Carroll. The plantation house was a small museum on campus; the fact was not hidden. These days, there are markers throughout the campus pointing out more of its slave history, including where the slave cabins once lay.

Homewood House Museum

I still come to campus regularly; and when the Hopkins library is open to the public, I’m usually there weekly, writing quietly away in the place where I first dreamt dreams of writing novels and articles.  My academic advisor, Bob Arellano, shaped my life trajectory by insisting I apply for an internship at the Baltimore Evening Sun. My junior year internship at the paper led to a Sunday work shift my senior year, and a full-time job after graduation. Although though the paper’s editorial workforce was majority white, I worked alongside many Black reporters, most of them University of Maryland journalism graduates. During this era, when the Baltimore Sun Company was privately owned by the Abell family, it was committed to building out a reporting force that mirrored the diversity of the city—which was 54.8 percent Black in 1980, and about 59 percent Black in 1990. The friendships I built over five years in that newsroom endure to this day—and I know that the diversity project was not just good for the city, it was joyful for me as a person. I should note that my friends did not complain to me about racist behavior toward them at college and on the job. Decades later, I was to hear some of these stories. Why didn’t they tell me then? I did not grow up marked as the descendent of slaves. I would not be able to understand, and how could I possible effect change?

My Hopkins graduation photo

Working at the paper made me feel like I was growing up. Another step toward maturity was joining a spiritual community. Going to a university built from a Quaker bequest made me want to learn more about the Religious Society of Friends, the faith community my parents had been active with during their years in England. At a Quaker Meeting House right across the street from Johns Hopkins University, I found silent worship thrilling, and the absence of a minister made me feel empowered to dig deep. As I learned about Quakers’ work for peace and social justice, I felt sure this was a group I wanted to stay connected with.  Five years later, I visited a second Quaker meeting in Baltimore that felt even more of a haven, and I joined as a member. I’ve now been part of this meeting—as others might call a church—for twenty-three years. The essential tenet is that God’s presence is Light, and that Light exists in every human being. Everyone is part of the Divine, with no person closer to God than another.

Johns Hopkins was a birthright Quaker who became a member, and was later reduced to being an attender, of the Baltimore Monthly Meeting of Friends, the meeting in Baltimore that predated the two meetings I know. Which brings me back to the difficult information that’s been shared—that Johns Hopkins was never an abolitionist, as had been described previously by the University, based on a 1929 biography written by his great-niece, Helen Hopkins Thom. The fact was, he’d owned at least five slaves during his lifetime. This information was discovered by Johns Hopkins historians through old census records listing slaves, and then was fact checked and confirmed as true. The University immediately shared the information with its community and held a Town Hall a few days later that was open to the public, providing a place for people to express pain and ask more questions about the new information.

Did Helen Hopkins Thom repeat a story she accepted as true from an older relative, or did she have suspicions and want to lay them to rest? As a writer who researches history for my novel, I wonder if she accepted a story told to her from a contemporary of the times as truth. I know that I’ve done the same, when I was researching religious riots and the independence movement in 1940s Calcutta.

And then I wonder about whether anyone at the Hopkins Press felt they had to fact-check…or if anyone who read Ms. Thom’s manuscript might have known something was off about the story. Yes, Quaker abolitionists existed and had safe houses on the Underground Railroad–but they were considered a radical, dangerous minority by  prosperous, big city Quakers.

Today, cynical minds (realists?) may think that Johns Hopkins gave away all his money at life’s end to buff up his image. Others might think he regretted the choices he’d made and sought to atone, by not only founding a university and hospital, but also an orphan home for children of color, and making sure his Black servants (no longer slaves) were well provided for in his will.

Johns Hopkins may remain an unknowable man, just as Baltimore can be both a Northern city, as well as part of the South. But I am here for the duration; and I give my commitment as an active alumna to Hopkins, just as I give my commitment to the city’s public schools, arts, library and the hungry.

When the Muse is Named Corona

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

“Love in the Age of Covid,” Bhaskar Chitrakar, 2020

Once the pandemic is a memory, what image will you remember? The tired mask on a hook by the door, or it a dear friend’s face trapped behind an oxygen mask—a sight you’re only privy to because the shot was beamed into Facebook?

Coronavirus pictures have been dismal until the last week or so, when media published proof of health care workers in England getting vaccinations, and now Americans as well. As gratifying as these pictures of jubilant workers are, they are digital images with limited visibility. The next day, something else fills up the center spot on the newspaper’s home page.

And we must never forget.

The museums that recently re-opened have closed because the virus is surging. But art never sleeps; I suspect many of its makers are contemplating the coronavirus. And I’m certain that  what these artists can eventually show us is different from mass perceptions.

Bhaskar Chitrakar with one of his creations

Bhaskar Chitrakar is a Kolkata artist in his early 40s who works in the Kalighat painting tradition that’s been identified with his city since the early 1800s.  The painter’s surname, Chitrakar, literally means “illustrator,” and he’s the last descendent in a clan of painters who have trained father to son and grandson for generations.

The type of painting that this family and others made is an endangered art called Kalighat Patachitra. These small paintings, bought as souvenirs, were created inside a Kolkata neighborhood called Kalighat in honor of its temple celebrating the goddess Kali. The art form started with small-scale religious paintings were sold at low cost to ordinary people. As British dominance in Bengal increased, people chafed at the foreigners’ oppression and the pretentiousness of the expanding Bengali upper class who eagerly took jobs as English-speaking clerks and officials. Babu, the honorific suffix these gentlemen favored for themselves, became slang meaning a silly gentleman. Babus were mocked for wearing western men’s pumps in conjunction with the Indian dhoti, and for smoking hookahs, and making a nuisance of themselves. Babus, artists, and wealthy women became recurring protagonists in Kalighat Pachitra work.

19th century Kalighat art at the Victoria and Albert Museum

More of the V&A’s historic Kalighat Patachitra

Bhaskar Chitrakar was six when his father started to teach him painting. By thirteen, he was working full-time. While remaining respectful of the exquisitely detailed painting form, Bhaskar experimented with his own social commentary: strong women, jazz-loving cats, cell phones and taxis. To suit his his own sensibility, he continued to clothe his men and women in traditional 19th century garb—the sherwani jackets, draped dhotis, and flowing saris that light up up his paintings.

“Dance of the Coronavirus,” Bhaskar Chitrakar

Bhaskar Chitrakar’s art entered my life in the most quotidian way: a marketing email. The Khazana Gallery, a Minneapolis, Minnesota venue representing South Asian artists, created an online event called Tree of Life last July. This was an art sale designed to offer extra support to Khazana’s artists living isolated and unable to sell their work because of India’s long and strict national quarantine. The gallery decided not to charge its usual commission in order to give all the money raised from the art sale to the folk artists.

Feeling curious, I clicked into the gallery of available images. Not all of Chitrakar’s watercolors had a coronavirus theme, but I smiled the most at ones that did.  “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” shows an elegant couple toasting each other from a six-foot distance, and “Have No Fear, I am Here” shows a smug, rounded corona molecule awaiting a syringe held by a flamboyant babu.

“Have No Fear, I am Here,” Bhaskar Chitrakar

I drew my husband Tony into the digital window shopping. When we choose a painting to admire or even buy, we usually see eye-to-eye.

“Leave Me Alone!” Bhaskar Chitrakar

This time was harder than usual, but we eventually chose the painting pictured above. A musician is wielding a musical instrument called a tanbura, all the while deftly balancing a cat on top of it and defiantly regarding the burning corona sun. He’s like all of us, balancing everything despite the difficulty of the situation. The man’s handsome coat is patterned with tiny corona images, and the coat’s tassel trim repeats the corona motif. I loved the grace of the musician’s movement, and the irony of his modern surgical mask against his fine clothing. Those masks made all of us look ridiculous. The picture is rounded out by a dog howling at the sun and a tiny crow. The three animals make me think of working parents with children underfoot.

After I’d placed my online order, the gallery emailed to alert me the picture we’d selected had already sold; yet Bhaskar was willing to recreate the same picture (he paints about eight works a month). I agreed, feeling glad that artists painting in a historic tradition are generous enough to recreate their visions by hand.

“Leave Me Alone!” departed India in early August and arrived in my home before that month’s end. I took it out straight away and admired it—along with six other works by different Indian artists. Art fever had infected me.

Yet despite my excitement over these purchases, I dragged my feet when it came to getting them framed. I didn’t feel especially safe going into the big box store where I usually got framing done. Working with a consultant to select the right frames and mats would take ages, and how many customers would be waiting ahead of me or breathing on the back of my neck?

In November, Covid-19 rates were rising, so I knew I had to get a move on before stores might close. I decided to try a small, socially distanced artist supply store in Towson, MD. I was the only customer at the framing desk, where a massive plexiglass shield protected staff and customers from each other. The process took about an hour, and I was glad that for three things: the framing consultant also liked the pictures, nobody got in line behind me, and I was putting some money into the pocket of a small business.

I collected my framed paintings today—just 24 hours after the first Pfizer vaccinations went into the arms of health care workers in my country. I had a place in mind on the living room wall, and when I hung the painting, it looked like it was home.

From where I sit, I can keep one eye on a blazing fire and the other on a mythical battle with an unnerving disease. In the distant future, I imagine a world that is healthier in some ways, and sicker in others.

In my imagination, a cute young child is running roughshod through my living room and clambers to stand up on an upholstered chair to better inspect “Leave Me Alone!” And then it’s time for me to answer:

Why is that funny guy’s mouth and nose covered up?

Khazana has revived its Tree of Life fundraising sale for the month of December, 2020. You can shop for available work from Bhaskar Chitrakar and four other folk artists working in India.

Holiday Novels for 2020

I’ve made a short list of recommended gift fiction that include some great historical and international novels.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia—In the 1950s, a Mexico City debutante travels visits a grand estate in the mountains and falls under a malevolent spell.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi—a young Ghanaian-American woman searches for religious and medical truths and family acceptance.

Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March—a mystery novel where an Anglo-Indian sleuth becomes involved with an elite Parsi family in 1890s Bombay.

Book of The Little Axe by Lauren Frances-Sharma—a historical novel set among generations of women in a family from Trinidad.

A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat—a fantasy novel recommended for readers aged 8-12 about a boy and girl who set out on a dangerous journey in a magical version of Thailand.

A Second Home

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Have you ever frequented a bookstore so often it became a second home?

From the moment in childhood that my parents permitted me to walk to our neighborhood bookstore, I’ve engaged in this kind of squatting. From Micawber’s Books in St. Paul, to long-gone independents in Baltimore and Washington D.C., I’ve been an independent bookstore regular.

For the last eight years, I’ve been a homing pigeon to The Ivy Bookshop, just a few miles from my house in Baltimore. The Ivy Bookshop started in 2001 as a small, quite genteel general bookstore. I was happy to sign stock there, but there weren’t many public events. What a change the store underwent with its second owners, Ed and Ann Berlin. I met them when I returned to life in Baltimore after a brief exodus to the Midwest. I quickly learned this wonderful couple wanted excitement in the store and would do everything to make writers feel like family.

So I was no longer just sitting in a chair paging through books. It was a thrill to be part of a bookstore that aimed to make local and international writers feel welcome. The store newsletter kept me abreast of many creative activities ranging from writing workshops to book talks. The Berlins were so successful in building community that they opened Bird in Hand, a bookstore-coffee shop near Johns Hopkins, which was easily accessible to people without cars. This shop also succeeded, with a younger, diverse customer base, some of whom were mostly there for the coffee.

Ed and Ann saw retirement on the horizon but were adamant the store should not be left looking for its next buyer. That’s how bookstores often lose their footing. When Ed met Emma Snyder, the executive director of PEN-Faulkner Foundation, he learned the former Baltimorean dreamed of starting her own small business in Baltimore. He lured her in, and she became a a part owner in 2017. She became The Ivy’s sole proprietor in 2019.

I still visit with the Berlins, who live about a fifteen-minute walk from my house. Recently, Ed gifted me with what he created during retirement: ADRIFT, a memoir that’s full of art he’s collected and stories of his travels and adventures. The built the Ivy into what it was—and they continue to be an important couple in Baltimore’s cultural life.

Under Emma’s care, Bird in Hand and the Ivy Bookshop continued smoothly; but like Ed, she was always thinking ahead and trouble-shooting. Emma looked at independent bookstores around the country that had survived the expansions of Barnes & Noble and mail order behemoth that is Amazon. She deduced most secure bookstores were located in buildings they owned, so they were never subsequent to rent hikes and other problems related to tenancy.

The obvious question arose. Should the Ivy leave its tiny space in a well-known strip mall to build something larger and with more economic resilience? Would the Ivy’s customers, used to 18 years of bookshopping at a strip mall, go somewhere else?

A charming green Victorian for sale two blocks from the original Ivy Bookshop provided the answer. The former church had a high ceilinged, long and wide room perfect for browsing, plus plus multiple other rooms. The property came with almost three acres of well-groomed lawns studded by trees and shrubs—quite unusual for any bookstore. There was a meditation path, a vintage gazebo, and a vast sheltered outdoor patio. There appeared to be enough room to open a coffee shop within the store, and to even keep a small apartment for the use of writers in residence or traveling on a book-signing journey.

Emma bought the property and renovations were well underway when a virus began spreading around the world.

Not only did Coronavirus slow the new shop’s buildout, it made in person shopping at the existing old stores unsafe. The Ivy closed down for browsing entirely and pivoted to taking book orders online and having them fulfilled by drive-to-home and mail deliveries or curbside pickup.

During this time, the Bird in Hand bookstore became a drop-off point for a Baltimore city CSA farm to leave bags of produce for people, something I was grateful for. Even though customers couldn’t enter the store, the Ivy carefully set out tables holding the CSA food. They kept making coffee and serving pastries, but it was to patrons sitting outdoors at distanced tables. Online, both stores hosted online book talks to promote authors who were releasing books into a world where there were no longer in-person book signings.

Despite the pandemic, renovation did proceed to completion and in October, the Ivy re-opened, following city rules about social distancing and reduced capacity.

I went for a private browsing appointment this week and discovered a bright, roomy space that is a book-lover’s dream. During my recent visit, I saw a constant steam of solo booklovers coming to pick up book orders or browse with appointments (it’s open to limited capacity walk-ins after 2 each day). On my way out, I saw shoppers outdoors browsing in the covered patio.

It had been so long since I’ve shopped for anything except food or essential supplies. Passing by bookcases loaded with colorful titles, I felt my spirits rise. I left with four bags of books, knowing that I’ll be back many more times, and that in June, when my next book releases, I can have a garden book talk.

If you are not a person who often gives books as gifts, now is the perfect time to try it out. A small effort this month can make you part of a bookstore family’s happy ending.

Signed copies of Sujata’s books are always available by mail order from The Ivy Bookshop. She’s also holding a Zoom talk about The Sleeping Dictionary at 6:30 p.m. EST on Dec. 14, 2020. Send her an email with the subject line Sleeping Dictionary Book Talk if you’d like the link.

Politics to Pastry: What Writers Share When They Blog

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A novelist I greatly admire wrote her last blogpost in September. Catriona McPherson, formerly of the Femmes Fatales, declared that that with the election ahead, so much work needed to be done that she felt it useless to write about “cats and courgettes”—nor did she want to turn her blogposts into a political soapbox.

Catriona (pronounced Catrina) comes from Scotland and is one of the funniest mystery authors on the planet. She was writing with a wink, but the truth is, writers are constantly self-censoring. It occurs when we write novels—editing out lots to make them better—and when we offer up essays to the internet or print publications. We become known for one thing—and people expect us to be amusing. Typically, we keep dark, pressing worries and political opinions to ourselves.

During the months after Catriona quit blogging, her activism was substantial. She penned 240 personal handwritten letters and mailed them to voters all over the country in the Vote Forward movement, something I also participated in (with just 40 letters written). Currently, Catriona’s working on letters to voters in Georgia. All the while she did this, she launched a new novel, The Turning Tide, featuring her clever and charming Mitfordesque heroine, Dandy Gilver, who lives in 1930s Scotland.

I’m glad Catriona put her priorities the way she needed this fall. And we’ve got to credit today’s readers for their choices. Since the pandemic, reader choices are trending toward social activist and apocalyptic books. Although there’s nothing wrong with the historical novels we write, either!

You might be reading this particular blogpost because you follow Murder is Everywhere, a blog built by ten writers whose crime fiction set outside of the US. Or you’ve found my blogposts cross-posted to my website and Goodreads and my Amazon page. Some information you are learning about me—the protests I participate in for Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, post office service and voting inclusion—is probably not the reason you Googled me. Yet I am someone who writes about a female lawyer in 1920s India whose concerns are national emancipation and civil rights for women. What I care about is probably not a shock.

Writing about politics is most definitely allowed in Murder is Everywhere, and I learn a lot listening to the accounts of my fellow bloggers, especially when they draw cultural parallels with the past or in other countries. You must sample the words of my co-conspirators Annamaria Alfieri, Cara Black, Kwei Quartey, Caro Ramsey, Zoe Sharp, Jeff Sigler, Michael Stanley, and Susan Spann to get a taste of politics and pastry around the world.

I’m pleased that there are enough of us writing that I only need contribute every other week. Fourteen days are a lot of time for events to break and then recede and for my mood to change from outraged to mellow. I can almost guarantee I’ll be writing about holiday cooking within the next few weeks and post pictures of adorable dogs on the hunt for crumbs.

The cozy and the distressing, all part of the world we live in, and I thank you for being here.

What a Wednesday

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

In the early hours of Wednesday November 4, I am running on fumes and bittersweet chocolate.

I stayed awake much of Tuesday night, watching and waiting as the votes roll in for the 2020 presidential election. Where was the easy win for Biden that I expected?

I voted about a month ago, as an absentee, which in Maryland meant that I filled out a ballot the Board of Elections mailed to my home. I then carried it to a locked ballot box placed outside one of my favorite places, the Baltimore Museum of Art. Two days later, I got an email saying my ballot was received, and a few weeks after that I was notified that my vote had been counted.

My situation was pretty ideal, and I appreciate Maryland’s decision to start counting absentee ballots as they arrive, rather than waiting to open the envelopes on election night, as is happening in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania and other swing states, the mail has been markedly slow, and many people didn’t get absentee ballots in time, and don’t have an assurance that their board of elections has their ballot to count.

The waiting game is not new for me. As a writer, I must have patience with myself to make it through the process of writing a book… and then seeing the publisher bring it to the bookshelf. As a mother who adopted two children internationally, I had long waits that were filled with longing and worry for the babies who could not join me right away.

Currently, I am waiting for a vaccination against the coronavirus that might be on the market by springtime… or some other time.

56 years of waiting have revealed that obsessing about the worst, while waiting, doesn’t change the outcome—or the way I feel, once destiny is revealed.

What I did today, to get through the wait for election results, I spent my day going through a copy edited manuscript, doing some light cooking. Almost all day I live-streamed rousing alternative rock and funk from my favorite radio station, the Current, based in Minneapolis. I don’t usually fill my day with live radio, but this time I welcomed the distracting beat.

I kept walking my dogs. After lunch, I drove over to the polling station at Barclay Elementary School and smiled to see a line of people almost as long as the block. Someone was playing music on their phone, and there was a festive sound to people’s conversations. I drove to another larger polling place, where there was no line, making me think the staffing and organization was efficient, or more voters in that area had filed absentee ballots.

When you work as a campaign volunteer—as I have in the prior three presidential elections—you get a small, personal snapshot of what’s going on. It usually feels very optimistic, and I am good at talking myself into thinking the rest of the country is like the people I’m talking to.

But at the moment, my spirit is stressed. I suspect I’ll be at a “Count Every Vote” demonstration on the street later today. I voted for Biden-Harris, for many reasons, including Trump’s reckless endangerment of people’s lives by not mounting a serious pandemic response. I thought that the rising death toll in red states would have meant something to the people living there.

Still, nothing is set. Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania will take days to count votes. And it would be good if all votes from overseas citizens arrive by mail to be counted… and our mail is running slow.

I have to remind myself that a few extra days, or even a week, is nothing compared to the distress of the last four years, when environmental regulation collapsed, and jobs and lives were lost for no good reason.

And this is why waiting does not mean giving up.

Kicking the Pandemic Bucket

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

This is not a post about death.

It is about the phenomenon of Pandemic Bucket Lists.

In the Before Times, my family and I commuted to work and spent long hours on errands and other activities outside our house. When our state locked down in April, I was among many who vowed to do things differently: to think positively, in the face of fear, and use the empty hours as a commitment to fulfilling dreams.

I heard a lot about pandemic bucket lists, and they seemed to fall into two varieties: one for wonderful activities to look forward to after the pandemic’s end, and the other for things to accomplish while living in solitude.

The bucket lists are a way to make sense of the insane; to order unpredictability. I can understand why some might think of them as a trivial trend. But I am a list maker and a resolution lover. I already had buckets at the ready.

The first imaginary bucket I have is shiny clean, because it is the bucket for Wishful Thinking.

Peering in, I don’t see much. I’m happy with the work I do, so I don’t want to reinvent that, or the place that I live. I do spy imaginary reservations for planes and trains and beautiful inns around the world. The first trips on this bucket list will be only see a few mundane activities of my past, and a few imagined activities for the future. I see travel: plane, train and car. I’ll get to Minnesota and Louisiana, to see my family and in-laws. I’ll also drive to Asheville, North Carolina and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. I will reappear looking different, with salt and pepper hair. I am using the pandemic let artifice fade and reality rise.

Another activity is feeding local friends inside my home and going around the country to see far-flung mystery readers and writers at conventions. Finally, the bottom of my wishful thinking bucket is filled with water. It represents the warm-water pool where I used to exercise four times a week and where I hope to someday be jumping and kicking and splashing again.

The second bucket—Pandemic Action Bucket—is gritty because it’s in use.

Gardening was one of the first things I got going on during pandemic spring, and as every gardener knows, the goals never stop. Besides my weed knife, the bucket holds plenty of books, especially those that are newly released by authors who I can read and watch on zoom. I’m also enjoying my children’s book collection, which felt too indulgent before, but is just right now.

And speaking of writing, I aim to finish my next book before pandemic’s end.

In the Before Times, there were social justice issues I cared about but didn’t have time to show up for. Now I am showing up, again and again, for Black Lives Matter, for the sake of the Post Office, and to support voting. In the end, each action takes only an hour or two; and the feeling of raising my voice for what I believe in gives me such an energy boost.

Back to the bucket of to-dos. I still haven’t decluttered my home to the point of looking as serene as an AirBnB. Yet I’ve reorganized my fridge and freezer and pantry every few months. Each venture teaches me how much food I actually have, and gets stuff out of storage and onto the table. I’ve mentioned my garden in previous blogs, and in the waning light of autumn, it is full-blown and exuberant. While I weed, I get to chat with my friends and neighbors and see the adorable young generation learn to ride bikes in the nearby lane.

Enjoying outdoor socialization, I felt inspired to buy two small tables for the side porch. Once the tables were set up, I arranged for the installation of ceiling fans. And the porch’s paint job was chipping, so it needed repainting. But wouldn’t it look weird for the rest of the house to stay dingy? That meant new shingles. And a fresh coat of stain.

As I write this, ten men are literally climbing the walls of our house, sanding off flaking paint, staining cedar shakes, and transforming tired beige trim to Windsor Green. After about a week’s work, they’ve still got a ways to go, but without a doubt, they’ll finish before the pandemic does.

“Thank you for the work,” a man nailing shingles to the house said to me when I praised his work. One of the painters said the same thing to me today. It made me realize that the things I think about doing to help myself feel calm have the potential to do the same for others.

And in such an uncertain time, this realization makes me happy.

You Can’t Have Truth Without Ruth

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Portrait of RBG by Joan Baez

Portrait of RBG by Joan Baez

She promised us she would not give up. Cancer hit her four times, yet she stayed on the job, conscious of the Americans who relied on her power within the U.S. Supreme Court. She strengthened herself by lifting weights, made from iron, and from authoritarianism.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 87 years old, appointed by President Bill Clinton as only the second woman justice on the Supreme Court. She leaves behind Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan as two other women on a court that now numbers eight.

A number of women friends have expressed to me that this death is “devastating.” While RBG became an icon for young women, many of us in our fifties and older remember life before laws were established for gender parity. In the 1970s, institutionalized sex discrimination meant there were fewer sports opportunities for girls in public schools and colleges, and women could be fired for pregnancy or even what they looked like. It was almost impossible to challenge pay discrimination. There was injustice in lending to women, and credit cards and credit ratings. Men also suffered at times from the lack of gender parity. Some cases that RBG won actually improved life for men, such as the right for a widower to access the same government benefits as a widow.

I write reality-based mystery fiction about a woman lawyer practicing in India during the early twentieth century. In those days, a scant number of women were studying in law schools in Asia, Europe and the United States. In some cases, they would do the all the coursework as males, yet be considered ineligible to get degrees. It was almost impossible for a law graduate to be hired by a firm that wasn’t run by her father or brother.

In my mind, I believed the matter would be greatly improved after World War II. It’s shocking to hear Ruth speak in the great documentary “RBG” about how a Harvard Law professor demanded she feel guilty for taking a place in the law school that should have been granted to a male. Ruth was a married mother—another factor that made life as a lawyer challenging—and she chose to leave Harvard for Columbia in order to accompany her husband to New York as he began his law career. Ruth switched to Columbia Law and tied for first place in her graduating class, yet the twelve New York law firms she applied to all rejected her. RBG went to work as a lawyer for the State of New York, then academia, then the American Civil Liberties Union, and finally, earned the penultimate power of confirmation to the Supreme Court.

I live in Maryland, just an hour from Washington, D.C., and it was cheering, during Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, to think of her being fairly close by. I might attend a concert at the Kennedy Center and wonder if RBG had recently been in the same space. I marveled at the stories about her and the late Justice Antonin Scalia, so diametrically opposed, enjoying time together at restaurants, parties and the opera. I was awed by news photos of her working out with her trainer. I also got a kick out of hearing how her late husband, Martin Ginsburg, enjoyed cooking more than she did.

Here are some of the many brilliant things Ruth said. For more like this, from quotes to cartoons to op-eds, check out the the Washington Post‘s emporium of RBG.

“Every now and then it helps to be a little deaf… that advice has stood me in good stead. Not simply in dealing with my marriage, but in dealing with my colleagues.”

“I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of my brethren is that they take their feet of our necks.”

“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

“It’s not women’s liberation. It’s women and men’s liberation.”

“Real change, enduring change, happens one step a a time.”

The Purgatory of Book Revision

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey

What a grand feeling for a writer to labor over the creation of the book, reach the final page, and triumphantly type: THE END.

(Sujata clears throat) Sorry, it’s not the end. If you’re a writer working with a traditional publisher, finishing a book means you’re submitting it to be read by an editor and will soon be asked to make revisions; anywhere from a few fixes per page to dozens. Multiply that by four hundred pages, and it’s like writing a book again.

Almost three months ago, my marked-up book that took 16 months to write in the first place came home again, along with a host of to-dos in the right margin. I got right to it, but it’s not been a cakewalk, and I’m not done yet.

It’s a joy to have time for a revision, and an editor like mine who cares to delve thoroughly and seek to make the book truly understandable, and ensure the fact given on page 100 is not negated on page 200. For any book to be fluently readable and enjoyable, there are going to be multiple drafts. And it’s always better for a writer to make the changes than an editor—though a copy editor does make lots of changes, subject to an author’s approval.

In order to meet sales, printing and distribution dates, not to mention marketing to booksellers, press and librarians, a publisher needs about a year. And that means Soho needs a workable manuscript from me for their year of labor. I can’t be on a pandemic schedule with my book, even tough I’m writing from home.

How I envy the writers who can rewrite their manuscripts in two to four weeks. These angels really do exist. I think the rewrite takes a longer time for me because I take the editor’s notes as a starting point. I read everything, word by word, just like a reader coming to the book for the first time. My eyes are glazing over with red, green, and blue “track changes” type. I went through all 440 pages already; but am traveling the same road once again, to clean up what I missed.

As much as I labor over rewriting, I love the fact this book came to me. It’s a historical mystery set in November 1921, a time that Edward, Prince of Wales, arrived in Bombay for a four-month tour meant to get Indians thrilled for continued British rule. Yes—that’s what the government thought. My lawyer sleuth, Perveen Mistry, knows the tour will mean trouble.

Up until this afternoon, I had it in my head the book was going to be titled Prince of Bombay. However, I looked at the draft cover illustration and realize it’s actually titled The Bombay Prince. I’m making the revision in my mind.

Everywhere, kids are back to school, either virtual or hybrid. And I’m in a school of my own making; a never-ending English assignment with plenty of Indian proper names. I fire up my laptop at six-thirty or seven in the morning; take short naps, long walks, and stretch my aching hips and hamstrings on a foam roller. I do my work perform at a desk, and also on my porch, and in bed, and even on my exercise ball. My brain is dead for more editing by five o’clock, although if someone picks up a carryout dinner, I may have the juice for a few more pages.

One hundred and ten pages left to read in five days. I’ll make it.