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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.

How to Rig an Election

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

This is a post about voting in 2020… but it begins at the time I was trying to become a citizen.

In 1998, I was a longtime green card holder who had finally made a citizenship application. Friends had told me not to be nervous at my US citizenship exam. They said it would be ridiculously easy. I was 34 years old, a newspaper reporter with a British passport and an American accent. I was used to talking to every kind of person.

But when I went into the little room at the Baltimore Immigration and Naturalization Service and met my examining officer, I knew it wasn’t going to be simple. The questioner was an unsmiling American man with a curt manner. After running through the basics on my name, age and address, he casually led off with this question:

“What’s the last year you voted in a US election?”

He made it sound innocuous, and of course, it wasn’t. This was a trap question to weed out those who had committed a deportable offense. I answered truthfully that I had not voted, but that question made me realize how powerful voting might be for me in the future.

I got enough questions right that I passed and got both a certificate of naturalization and a U.S. passport. That fall I cast my first vote in a presidential election and have been voting ever since. As years passed, I found myself going to meet-and-greets for candidates at people’s homes, phoning potential voters, going door to door, and even driving voters to their polling stations.

So much of that activity cannot happen this year, because many campaign organizations are moving to remote strategies to keep from spreading COVID-19 infection. I get my politics by watching TV, reading the paper, listening to the radio and meeting candidates and activists on zoom. There’s a letter-writing campaign, Vote Forward, that I hope to participate in. A writer should be able to write a few letters encouraging people to find a way that works for them to safely vote.

Here in Maryland, our Republican governor, Larry Hogan, has declared a state of emergency which means he can decide how we vote. He’s decided to keep in-person voting. At the same time, he’s acknowledged that thousands of election judges are unable to staff the polls. His solution is closing Maryland’s 1600 polling places. Instead, there will be 360 voting centers to serve the state. I’m waiting to hear if there are enough people willing to work at these places to make it possible to cast votes in a timely fashion and if the voting centers might also have boxes where absentee ballots can be dropped off. That’s a strategy I’m hoping to participate in, having read the thoughts of New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie.

And while Marylanders are asking for the whole state to receive mailed absentee ballots, what’s happening instead is he’s requiring every voter to send in an application requesting a ballot. When I went online to request a Maryland absentee voter ballot today, I dutifully filled out every bit to find out I’d created a “system error.” Fortunately, I had more internet links to try, and at a different site, I was successfully registered to get an absentee voter application. But there you have it: Maryland has a terrible online system, and that’s if you have the energy to try.

Beyond Maryland, absentee voting is hard. Will the ballots come to us, and will they be received by the vote-counters in time? In May, Trump appointed a campaign supporter, Louis DeJoy, as the new postmaster general. Since DeJoy’s taken over, he’s fired many experienced officers in the system and made changes that have led to infrequent mail delivery for our household and almost everyone I know. In Minneapolis, the post office simply stopped delivering mail to a public housing complex. Imagine that kind of effort, applied by the post office to public housing addresses in cities all over the country.

I wave when I see Tom, our wonderful neighborhood postal carrier, faithfully walking his route with a mask during these hot months. Occasionally, he has nothing but advertising circulars to dispense to the block, because the delivery truck containing letters and packages never showed up that day. And imagine having a neighborhood post office with zero stamps in its inventory!

When we all know the post office needs to sell stamps to generate income to support itself—there are no tax dollars supporting mail.

“When the post office is closed during business hours, you know you’re in a banana republic,” an irritated woman muttered as we waited in a distanced line outside the post office one morning.

Yes. And if we cannot have our votes counted, it will only get worse.

Mexican Gothic: Talking With Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The most exciting kind of travel has been taken away from us. Borders are closed, flights cancelled, museums shuttered. And who dares go to a restaurant? Yet we can still escape quarantine with books. And nowhere has seemed more mysterious, gorgeous and suspenseful to me than the inner world of a book called Mexican Gothic.

This remarkable novel by Silva Moreno-Garcia is narrated by Noemi Taboada, a smart young single woman who is sent by her wealthy family in Mexico City to check up on a cousin who’s sent a worrying letter after having moved to her husband’s family estate in the mountains. This is a true Gothic novel, with the benefit of being enriched with Indian mythology and surreal dream imagery, and colonial history, warped eugenic theory, and biology of plants, animals and insects. Critics are calling it intoxicating and pitch perfect gothic and admire its chills and thrills. It debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and is still in the top 15 three weeks later.

I am grateful to Silvia for answering my questions about the book and her writing life.


Silvia, this is a very special book. To me it feels like part historical suspense, part gothic novel, part Latin-American magic realism, part horror. Were you aware you were doing something ground-breaking with this book? Did you hear “this book doesn’t fit any category” when you were in the submission process? Was this book an easy sell or a complex sell?

Gothic fiction is a hybrid genre. It contains elements of psychological suspense, sometimes of outright horror, sometimes romance, sometimes supernatural elements, often a historical setting. It can have a mystery. It’s the literary grandparent to modern domestic noir, but also an ancestor of modern romance. It’s why I was interested in working in a Gothic mode. It can spill out of categories.

As to how it sold, it was easy in the sense that Del Rey bought my previous novel, Gods of Jade and Shadow, in a two-book deal. So this was the second book I delivered and because I was under the contract we didn’t have to shop it around.

However, that ease is relative. I’ve had a hard time selling almost everything I’ve ever published. Right after finishing Mexican Gothic we tried selling Untamed Shore, a noir, and it was basically impossible to move that. We ended going with a new, small press called Polis/Agora for a very modest advance of a few hundred dollars and a print run of 2,000 copies.

English Pantheon
by Diego Delso, Lic CC-BY-SA

Is this book coming out in any other countries, and any film interest yet?

I’ve never had much luck with translation but Gods of Jade and Shadow and Mexican Gothic will be translated into a handful of languages. And there is film interest. Nothing firm, though.

Mexican Gothic has been on the NYT bestseller list for two weeks, and hopefully more, as word spreads. What is different about life for you now that you are a NYT bestselling author? 

I can hopefully worry less about my future. As I indicated above, it hasn’t necessarily been easy to sell my work. My vampire narco novel Certain Dark Things and my fantasy of manners The Beautiful Ones both went out of print very quickly. Publishing houses expect very quick successes and have little patience in nurturing talent. And they didn’t think much of my genre-switching ways. I’m not interested in writing in just one category, I don’t want to write series, I write a lot about Mexico. All those were minuses for me. But now that might not matter.

This book presents an old-fashioned Mexico with most characters living elite lives, rather than the stereotype of suffering that is predominant in novels published in English about Latin America. Did you intentionally wish to share a different Mexico?

All my books show different slices of Mexico. In Certain Dark Things one of the POVs is a homeless teen, in Untamed Shore we have a woman in a very small town in Baja California with limited social mobility, in Signal to Noise the characters are different shades of middle class. There are programmers, cops, radio announcers, small business owners, translators, and everything else.

It’s the 1950s, and two regions are central to the novel—sophisticated Mexico City and the quiet mountains, where peasants still labor in silver mines for foreign landowners like the Doyles. What is your relationship with these areas? Had you visited each place over the years and how else did you learn such intimate details of these places?

Mexican Gothic is inspired by Real del Monte (also known as Mineral del Monte), which is a town located in Hidalgo in central Mexico. It was mined by the Spanish and then by the British, which earned it the nickname of Little Cornwall. It has a very unique look and feel because of that. There’s an English cemetery and it is high in the mountains, so it can get chilly and foggy. Yuri Herrera by coincidence recently released a non-fiction book about this region and its mines called A Silent Fury. If you want to learn more about it, check it out.

The Pool Las Pozas
by Rod Waddington of Kergunyah, Australia, Lic CC-ASA-2.0

It’s also worth mentioning that Edward James built a surrealist garden in Mexico, in Xilitla. I didn’t include this in my book but at one point I wanted to have structures inspired by it, with stairs that go nowhere and things like that. I think it has a very haunting look.

A Stairway to Heaven in the surrealist garden
Photo by Pavel Kirilov from St Petersburg, Russia

The novel’s heroine, Noemi, is a pampered society girl who wants to study anthropology rather than marry. She longs to enroll at the national university, and her father promises to pay for it if she’ll check on her cousin. Noemi arrives at the remote Victorian mansion with a suitcase of lovely clothing, cigarettes and a lighter. Tell us more about the inspiration for your protagonist.

My family on my mother’s side was poor, my great-grandmother was a maid and my grandmother wanted to be a doctor, but her father forbade it. He said she couldn’t go to medical school because there would be men there. Plus, they expected her to bring money in for the family. So at 15 she finished secretarial school and by her early twenties she married, which was what you did in the 1950s.

My father’s side of the family, my aunts came from a family with some money so they were able to live a life of leisure, and a couple of my great aunts remain unmarried (solteronas) because the family had enough money to support them. One of my great aunts that did marry had a bad marriage and stayed for a while because she was terrified of what people would think if she separated. And in the case of my own grandmother, my grandfather abandoned the family and divorced her, but she couldn’t say that publicly. They lied because if anyone knew about it, my father and his siblings would have been expelled from their Catholic school. There were a lot of secrets that we kept because of the prevailing morality.

My heroine is going to rural Mexico in 1950. Women don’t even have the right to vote. She can’t just phone the authorities and drag her cousin out of a house, even if the people there are creepy. And the family wants to keep this all obviously hush-hush.

Mexico was never a British colony, buts its land and people were exploited by British and American businessmen, following Spain. Discuss the Doyles and how they fit in with this picture.

Spain was the first European nation that exploited Mexico, but obviously it wasn’t the only one. We didn’t get a French empire in Mexico for a few years just because we were bored. Colonialism is not something that ends and everyone says let’s go home. One reason why Latin America is an absolute mess nowadays is because the USA intervened in many countries there, backing coups and destabilizing countries. My next novel briefly mentions some of the CIA’s work in Mexico in the 1960s when they helped train Mexican forces so they could repress and violently neutralize Communist activists. The Doyles are in many ways a much easier boogeyman than the horrific legacy we have in Latin America.

The description of ghostly people in the novel ring true to paranormal experiences people have chronicled. Can you share if you used real accounts of hauntings as background for what happens in the house, or is it all a glorious fantasy?

Ghost stories are fun but it’s all completely made up.

When the pandemic is over and we can travel, what are a few must places in Mexico, that are beautiful and historic, you’d recommend? 

Mexico has very different regions. In the south you have the jungle and a number of Maya archeological sites, in the middle there are many cities that were colonial sites, in Baja California we have desert and water and whales and sharks, and we obviously have beaches too. And then there’s Mexico City which is huge. So it really depends what you feel like doing.

Can you tell us about the crime novel that you released earlier this year?

Untamed Shore combines a coming of age narrative with a noir sensibility. It’s set in the 1970s in a small shark fishing village where a young Mexican woman becomes entangled with some American tourists. I’ve seen people compare it to Jim Thompson’s work. It had two starred reviews (Booklist, Library Journal) but because it came out from such a small press not many people heard about it. LA Review of Books said “Brutality takes on an almost divine quality.” So, maybe check that out.

I think once people have finished Mexican Gothic they’ll be ravenous for your other work. I’m grateful you’ve got all these books waiting for me, and that you continue to take risks and tell the stories that are in your heart. Thank you for visiting with Murder is Everywhere.

Roots of Writing

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I got a three-month writing retreat with every comfort needed!

I scrawled the grand statement, which sounds like a cheesy advertisement, and taped it next to the guest room desk back in March. I was upset about the pandemic, and I was trying to reframe what I could do with the quiet time in my future. There would be no school activities, doctors’ appointments, no grocery shopping, no hours at the gym. The time would really be mine alone to write.

Of course, I wrote down the hours I planned to write. They came just before or amid zoom appointments and phone calls. In between those appointments I had other duties, ranging from cooking to dog walking and gardening. All of it went into my bullet journal. Some days, I felt like I was writing more in my bullet journal than anywhere else.

It’s crazy how fast the three months of retreat turned to four. And no end in sight.

Here’s my plan, which no longer requires documentation for myself, or anyone else. I work on my writing for as long as I can before my brain goes dead, usually two to three hours. And then I credit myself for what I’ve done and move onto something else. Often, it’s the garden.

I’ve described the growing pains for my fledgling victory vegetable garden, which has yielded the tiniest radishes I’ve ever seen, a bit of parsley, and some shallots that may or may not be ready. I’m afraid to dig them out and be disappointed.

My native plant gardens are different. Started in fits of activity and lulls of laziness over the last four years, I have three distinct zones filled with cuttings and young seedlings that took root, require little water or care, and are bursting with enthusiasm.  If you could imagine a book that would write itself for each year—yes, that is my actual fantasy—you only need to see a native plant garden doing just that.

Pictured at the top of my blogpost is a native plant to the Maryland-Delaware-Virginia area; it’s called veronicastrum virginatum and is more commonly known as Culver’s Root. Already it’s almost five feet tall, with flowery stems set up like a candelabra. I’m thrilled this one huge clump of vv has become Studio 54 for native bees, all shapes and sizes.

I am not afraid of my bees. I love to watch them dance around the Culver’s Root and the other neighboring plants in flower. I smile when I see the squirrels chase each other in the trees, and I even tolerate watching a rabbit munch the leaves of a baby native flower.

Insects and animals are my company, breaking up the isolation. And the distraction they offer is oddly medicinal. When I am literally grounded—with my hands in the earth, I mean—I look two feet away and discover a small robin has settled down to watch me, and doesn’t budge when I move.

Gardening does something magic, even if it means I’m not writing. After I dust off the dirt and shower, I feel like a new person eager to return to my book. I wind up able to write longer, because of time spent in nature.

A writer’s lament is that her job is never done. Just as a garden is never finished; something’s always coming up, whether it is noble and bountiful like the Culver’s Root, or unhealthily dominant, like the pesky unnamed green vine that shoots up and twists the good guys down to the ground. Such drama to clip those vines and attack their roots.

I’ll always have writing work to do. But thank God for it. The volume of my work fills the void. Having a creative project at home gives order to a life when rules have evaporated.

I do not know the future. Come August, I’ll probably be done with edits to my third Perveen Mistry novel. Maybe not.

What I do know for sure is that the Black-Eyed Susans are going to burst into full, glorious bloom, and the bees will be drinking their fill.

Chocolate, Sourdough, and Other Blessings

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

MFK Fisher in France

MFK Fisher in France

A few weeks into the pandemic, a big bang broke this stillness of a stay-at-home Saturday afternoon.

An electric fuse had blown, which meant the third floor had no lights, and the wi-fi was down as well.

When I say a fuse was blown, I don’t mean a modern one made of steel that’s neatly labeled. We have those fuses in the basement. The fuse that blew was antique, the kind of curiosity no contemporary electrician would have on hand.

Our mercurial fuses

My husband called around to a couple of historic neighborhood hardware shops. The second store, Falkenhan’s Hardware, still had such early 20th century fuses in stock. Tony got six of them for ten dollars, and an hour later, he screwed in the new fuse while I kept my fingers crossed. Once again lights shone, fans whirred, and a wi-fi signal allowed us to keep going with our work.

The famous King Arthur pizza!

We are now solving problems with our own hands. In my neighborhood, several homeowners are up on their roofs, replacing shingles and painting the porch trim. And we are gardening like gangbusters. Seed companies and nurseries have an estimated 300-plus percentage rise in business. The green proof is visible in raised beds, garden boxes, and potted plants growing everywhere you look. 2020 is the best year for gardening, ever.

My garden box with lettuces

And while I don’t peer through people’s windows, I suspect many more people are cooking, some for the first time in their lives. Fortunately, newspaper websites abound with cheerful instruction, as do websites like Kitchn, Food52, and Bon Appetit, and King Arthur. Six times already I’ve baked King Arthur Flour’s Recipe of 2020, a deep dish cheese pizza that involves making pizza dough yourself and setting it up for a no-fail rise by using a cast iron frying pan. King Arthur is also the go-to spot for fledgling sourdough bakers, and those who use sourdough discards to thriftily make more food, like the sourdough-chocolate cake below.

A sourdough chocolate cake!

I leave no stone unturned, when it comes to culinary thrift. Before I got my garden box going, I harvested dandelion leaves and wild onion from my garden. I freeze vegetable scraps, chicken bones, and shrimp shells to make different stocks. In fact, I’ve become such an old-fashioned homemaker that I’m freezing cut-off pieces of fat to melt down into lard.

I can stay out of the stores because I’ve found local farmers who sell to customers directly—not just at farmers’ markets, but by porch delivery, the US mail, or curbside pickup. And within the city, at least four restaurants I know are not just offering takeout, but regular  ingredients to home cooks.

Here in Baltimore, curbside pickup from my local restaurant, La Cuchara, means signing up online a day ahead for what they can order in for us from their farmers and food distributors.  On the luxurious side, these curbside pickups have included fresh Chesapeake Bay oysters and diver scallops and rockfish. More goodies have been local strawberries and turnips, garlic ramps, and morels, oyster and porcini mushrooms: all priced at, or slightly below, regular grocery prices. I’ve adjusted to buying what the farmers and restaurants can provide—blocks of butter rather than sticks, and takeout containers of olive oil and canola that I funnel into clean, recycled bottles at home.

Local kohlrabi and sugar snap peas

I wonder how long restaurants will keep going with the marketplace model. The truth of it is, I’d rather swing by a restaurant and open my trunk than enter the maelstrom of a grocery store, where I cannot count on all patrons being masked.

I also experiment with foods that arrives weekly in a Community-Supported-Agriculture (CSA) bag: things like kohlrabi, tatsoi, and many kinds of lettuce. The CSA movement across the United States was started by small farmers who want to sell their harvest to customers who’ve committed at the season’s beginning to paying them for four to six months’ worth of vegetables, fruits, and other products.

And what if the CSA throws more collards and kale into the bag than the Masseys can handle? It’s easy to drop off extra greens or asparagus or lettuce to someone who needs it. Food is so precious now. One of the stories I like best is that of Michelle Brenner, a furloughed worker in Washington. During this pandemic, she got a new name: The Lasagna Lady, after baking and donating more than 1200 large pans of lasagna.

My mother was born in Germany during the war years. As long as I’ve known her, she has carried a small bar of good chocolate in her purse and kept an ever-changing assortment of chocolate bars and boxes in the house. All this chocolate—even though I rarely have seen her eat more than one square. The chocolate is for giving to others. She says having it in her bag is a legacy of growing up as a child of war. With the pandemic, I’m starting to understand this better. While chocolate’s sugar is an energy and mood boost—instant food that keeps well—it’s much more. Emotionally, holding onto something like chocolate is a reminder that we are safe, and we still have treats to enjoy.

World War II food reminds me of the legendary Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. Best known as MFK Fisher, Mary Frances was born in 1908 and became a legendary cook and writer during a time that gourmet food was a man’s business.

My first taste of her writing was The Gastronomical Me, witty and wonderful essays about her life as a young bride discovering 1930s France through its food. Her adventures made me eager to start my own writing life overseas. And with the help of my husband, that wonderful amateur electrician, all that did come to pass in Japan in the early 1990s.

One of Mrs. Fisher’s greatest works was written and published during World War II. It’s a book of essays and recipes called How To Cook a Wolf. The grim title is a play on words referring to finishing off fear, and also satisfying one’s appetite when there’s little available to eat. Although my assumptions could be wrong; it has a graphic chapter on cooking small animals such as “hare” and pigeons.

Mrs. Fisher believed that while the war was terrible, it also shook people into the right frame of mind. Here’s a bit that amused me, especially because of the COVID-19 sourdough boom.

“Lastly, perhaps because of the very propaganda that seems so contradictory, it has been easier to buy food with a little taste to it, once you have conquered your distrust of the thick neat slices and the transparent wrappings. You have even been able to get sourdough bread once a week in some groceries: a frail wisp of the old nose-tickling loaf, but at least an effort in the right direction . . . Sometimes, when you go past a factory in the “foreign” section of a town, and smell the honest exciting smell of real bread baking, you remember a part of your childhood, and feel a child’s helplessness before the fact of a whole nation’s cautious acceptance of its own simplicity.”

Respite

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

People around the world are saying, when?

Over eight weeks ago, business as usual stopped for most of us. Not just working: but shopping, learning, socializing, being out in society. Some are saying enough already! and demanding that their states’ governors reopen all non-essential businesses and get children back to school.

Many of the open-up crowd don’t have money to support staying at home without working.   Unfortunately, my country’s government is quicker to aid large businesses who might suffer economic losses than the poor and the middle class.

In Baltimore, COVID-19 hospitalizations and diagnoses are rising. We do not look anything like the downward slope of the national graph. We aren’t yet opening up houses of worship, playgrounds, barbershops and tattoo parlors, as our governor has said is safe for the state of Maryland.

I agree with the decision of Baltimore’s mayor. I don’t want exponential spread of illnesses. I have friends battling the illness and neighbors who risk their lives to work in hospitals and pharmacies.

I know that I’m privileged to stay at home. I’m not a front line worker. I have access to food throughout this crisis, and live in a neighborhood where I can peacefully garden and walk outside.

When I long for openness, I take my little dog on a walk alongside a stream called Stony Run. It’s a tributary to the Jones Falls in Baltimore, a powerful waterway that once supported mills in 19th century Baltimore. The wooded walking trail is about three miles long.

The Stony Run was here long before the pandemic. It rushed along when Indians lived along its banks, and when slaves secretly traveled north to freedom. It played its water music through the Civil War, the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, and World War II and Viet Nam.

Due to the labors of environmentalists and neighbors, this creek is at its healthiest these days. It is a haven for so many forms of life, from tiny crawfish and worms to chipmunks, mice, birds, and wildflowers. And as I stroll, the Stony Run seems to whisper that normal really does lie ahead.

Sustainable Hope

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

On a recent day that I was missing fresh greens,  I walked into the garden. It was long before I’d planted my first seeds for lettuce. Not much was there. And yet…

I appraised the dandelions. Their gay golden faces are dotted all over the lawn and garden beds. I needed to weed anyway, and as I got down on my knees, I saw how beautiful and crisp and long many of the leafy plants were. They were absolutely fit for a “spring mix.” As I dug up a few clusters of dandelions, I saw more and more that I wanted.  I could have a series of salads. I hesitated, wondering if I was depleting my garden of food I might need later.

After I had taken many handfuls of crisp greens, I washed them in a deep bowl, rinsing them over and over until the water ran clear. I dried the greens in a towel and then and mixed them with hearts of palm, red onion slices, a bit of orange, and a little bit of leftover fennel. With a little oil and vinegar and honey, it was a delicious salad.

I have butter lettuce and romaine now, thanks to a couple of businesses that have their own delivery truck service. When I make an order, I get things for my neighbors, too. I am making my own bread and biscuits. I feel like no matter what, I can feed myself.

I was so glad for the dandelions the day I needed to eat them. They’re still popping up here and there, and I doubt they’ll ever be eradicated. I’m also taking wild chives from the lawn, and feeling grateful for their snap. It reminds me of the stories from elderly Japanese people who recalled eating grass during the war years, when there was no rice and not much of anything else.

I was placing a blueberry bush into the garden today. Turning to get some compost, I noticed a large black bird with a tangerine-colored body was staring at me.  Could this be a Baltimore Oriole, a bird that represents our city and sports team, but that has eluded my gaze in the decades that I’ve lived here?

The oriole was sitting on the branch of the lilac that I’ve considered removing because it grew horizontally rather than upward. Now I realize the handicapped lilac make the perfect perch for this bird to watch over the garden. Did he realize the awkward human was planting something that would make exquisite dining for him in the next months?

The makeshift becomes magical sometimes. And as daunting as the next months are supposed to be, I will keep hope in my heart.

Victories for Nature

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The skies are blue, the clouds dense, and it’s quiet enough that you can hear the birds. Our two dogs have never had more attention. And with a lack of places to go, I am in my garden.

The leading picture for this blogpost is a raised bed garden belonging to my neighbors, Joe and Sarah. Their practical, proud use of front-yard real estate takes on new meaning this year, as people long for a small way to be in control during a time of uncertainty. Everywhere, people are planting masses of herbs, vegetables and fruit into so-called victory gardens—a term that hasn’t been used since World War II, when people were encouraged to provide for themselves to allow more resources for men and women serving overseas.

Debbie planted herbs in cinderblocks, and so much more

Growing vegetables and fruit is an exciting challenge for me, because I am more of a wishful gardener than a skilled one. I have had the blessing of green space around home throughout my life. I have been planting and marveling at my small progresses over the years. Yet I don’t believe I will ever have the commitment to be a daily gardener.

Native Toad Trilliums grown by master gardener Debbie

My mother gave me Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden when I was 9. This masterwork of children’s literature was written in 1911. It romantically details how gardening transforms two depressed children—her very old-fashioned theory that has recently been recognized as a therapeutic practice. In the novel’s Misselthwaite Manor, an estate in Yorkshire, England, gardens are described as being set up in a series of outdoor rooms that literally have stone walls and wooden doors that lock, presumably to keep out animals and others who don’t have rights to food or flowers. Glancing through my beloved book this afternoon, I realized that gardens in my American city suburb are anything but walled and hidden. Quite a few people, like Joe and Sarah, have turned their front yards into working kitchen gardens. Fruits and vegetables and flowers intermingle, and in my particular section of North Baltimore, plants native to the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachian mountains are widely encouraged, with transplants shared like bonbons by those in the know.

I enthusiastically visit public gardens and my neighbors’ yards with an appreciate eye. Until recently, I would say, “next year I will get serious about gardening.” Fortunately, I decided 2020 was going to be my serious year, and I had the foresight to start working last fall. Kay McConnell, a tremendous, environmentally oriented garden designer in my city, masterminded a backyard garden planted with natives that would thrive in the various conditions of my space; wet, dry, shaded, and sunny. Together Kay and I planted over 400 native perennial flowers, shrubs, and trees.

My garden’s baby dogwood is part of a group a woodland grove

Tulle protects strawberries in Debbie’s garden

In the past, I’ve grown a few herbs and capsicums and lettuce in a tabletop vegetable garden (often called a salad box). My husband built the structure in a weekend (yay!) and we filled its shallow pan with soil meant for raised bed gardens. It works fine, but it’s pretty small.

The “salad box” only has chives at the moment

I decided a few weeks ago to go a little bigger with vegetables. I began by making Zoom calls to accomplished gardening friends who had been eating from their gardens for years. I picked and chose from what they were doing. I see that almost all of my mentors have blueberries growing, some of them interwoven in floral landscapes; others set aside as little monarchs, walled off from intruders. When you plant things that taste good, you have to put in obstructions, if you want some of it for yourself.

Tom and Liz’s blueberry has to be fenced to keep it from the family’s chickens

No chickens are getting to Tom and Liz’s Stuttgarter mini onions!

I heard that blueberries are good in sandy soil, but I will spread them around to various spots to hedge my bets. The blueberries will be shielded from the birds by netting.  I don’t feel guilty, because there’s an open row of flowering chokeberry shrubs for the birds and anyone else. Apparently, squirrels and rabbits aren’t interested in garlic and onions, so I planted shallot bulbs and garlic cloves right in the dirt under the lilacs.

Betsy’s blueberry is artistically melded into a perennial landscape

Garlic and onions underground

I hope to harvest something for our family; therefore, most of our vegetable and herb plantings are on an elevated, gated deck just off our kitchen. This is the same location of the tabletop vegetable garden, and various pots of struggling tomatoes. And something new—dresser drawer garden. It’s just like it sounds. We drilled holes in the bottoms of the boxes for drainage, filled them, and put them on a granite workbench.

Dresser drawers hold shallots and radishes

I’m fortunate to live in a state with an early spring, and long warm summers that allow fruit trees like plums and peaches. Another blessing is that although my city of Baltimore offers plenty of restaurants, shops, and arts establishments and diversity of experiences, it also has city neighborhoods with trees and gardens and plenty of walking space.

If I plant marigolds, will it keep pests from my veggies?

How can I feel housebound when my garden has so many corners to spend time in—whether it’s to attack a patch of truculent ivy, or plant herbs and flowers in a pot, or hunt down dandelion leaves for salad? To stroll onto the deck and pluck a few chives to sprinkle over soup makes me feel wealthy beyond measure.

This spring, gardening books are piled high in the living room coffee table, next to my bed, and fill the shelves of the dining room. Still, nobody should feel they need a book to explain how to start growing flowers, fruit and vegetables. The internet is full of help. For a non-commercial, knowledgable overview, check out the New York Times column by Margaret Roach, as well as her long running podcast, A Way to Garden. (The podcast episode I’ve linked is a discussion of the idea of a pollinator victory garden). Adrian Higgins, the longtime gardening columnist for The Washington Post, also writes inspiringly about modern victory gardens and many other topics.

The quarantine gives us room to breathe and get close to the soil. And that’s a victory in itself.