Archive for Baltimore

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.

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.

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.

Gardening on Deadline

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

For too long, I’ve been lost in the LED-lit, indoor world of writing. Over the last month, I was intent on doing nothing else except finish a book.

It also happened that late November turned out to be the only time to plant a garden. Fall planting is easier on trees and shrubs that will get a good watering all fall and winter. Yes, I had a book due; but the garden also had to be installed, after having been delayed by several months due to Maryland’s unusually dry fall.

The garden and I have been at loggerheads before. My quest to unsettle a little less than an acre of city land began when I moved in with my family during the fall of 2012. The first thing we did was absolutely violent. We hired a company to drill four wells 500 feet deep inside our long, sloping lawn. The racket it made! The ash that spewed into the neighborhood air! The sky looked so gray over our street that somebody called the fire department.

Ah, the geothermal wells. They make it possible to have a modern air conditioning system where the air passes over the cold water, deep in the ground, and returns to the house. No chemicals, no excessive use of electricity.

From almost the start, our land has served us. But it has always been scraggly around the edges. Every spring I would be filled with inspiration that would trickle away about the time the mosquitoes settled in for feasting at the end of June. I wanted a garden full of native plants to support wildlife and suppress weeds. But how? The longer I fretted, the more the weeds spread.

Three years ago, I dug a small front garden myself with native plants, but it was such a hodgepodge without coherent flow that I wanted more assistance the next time I tried an improvement. This fall, I felt blessed to be aided by a native gardening education consultant/garden artist/all-around genius. Kay McConnell is well known in Maryland for the beautiful native plant gardens she designed and installed at the Friends School of Baltimore, Stony Run Meeting, and other spots.

Under Kay’s eagle eye, a weed-filled stretch running along the back of the property was cleared in late August as the site of our future rain garden. The clearing and regrading of the earths was done by strong men driving big machines. The new space they created wasn’t flat smooth dirt, but two raised banks surrounding a long basin. This would catch water that ran down our sloping lawn toward the lane. The saved water would feed the kind of plants like native iris and milkweed that like their feet wet.

As the dry fall turned into a rainy November, the prepared, empty garden space slowly became wet. Kay rooted through her native plant stock and area nurseries, looking for the best shrubs, trees, grasses and native perennials. A willow, magnolias and dogwoods were found, along with itea, bayberry, buttonbush, various ferns, swamp milkweed, oak leaf hydrangea…

The list went on. Over several days in late November, Kay unloaded shrubs and flowering plants and grasses from her car. The trees came in with European Landscapes and Design, the company that had done the original garden clean-up and preparation.

I recently heard a few different people use the phrase: “We go big, or we go home.” It’s a 2019 cliché. However, I could not deny that things were getting very big, right at my home.

I was thrilled to realize that every single tree, grass and shrub would feed local birds and insects. The garden design has woodland, meadow and swamp sections, with everything flowing together in an artistic manner, with fields of color, and high and low points. I found myself spellbound watching Kay. She is a true artist in the garden, arranging plants and rearranging them as the visual flow becomes apparent to her.

As I worked under Kay’s direction, I learned so much. She taught me how to plant a natural looking drift of small flowers. I absorbed the new thinking on weed control: don’t tug them out, which disrupts the earth and activates weed seeds. Instead, cut them close to the ground to weaken the plant.

I saw, through her eyes, how an aged stretch of asphalt pavers could become a dining terrace or site for a fire-pit gathering spot. And as my neighbors strolled along the lane that runs on the other side of the new garden, they had plenty to say. Michael, after visiting with us a few times, commented that he felt that spirits had entered the garden that were never there before.

And that’s how writing works, too. A bulky stone is chipped away to reveal the story hiding within. It takes time, but it’s always waiting for you.

And the thing about gardening deadlines is that the only one that really matters is set by nature. One can’t dig after the ground is frozen—unless, perhaps, you have a geothermal drill.

And putting a plant into earth does not guarantee it will emerge in the spring. That is the mystery I’m entering.

Love in the Library, Part I

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The Magic Hour by Dirk Joseph in the Pratt window

Back in Grade One—about the time I stopped having to use my finger to read word by word—I fell in love with stories. I could not get enough of reading, and thank goodness there were libraries to sate my appetite.

Libraries were the place I, as an elementary school student, could make my own choices about what I wanted to take home. It wasn’t like going to a department store, where my mom ultimately decided if she would pay for the sweater I wanted. I didn’t have to get permission; and it didn’t cost any more for me to take out nine books or one. It was all free.

Baltimore’s Pratt Street Central Library today

Entrance to the business and science section

This aged etching on second floor celebrates poet Lizette Woodworth Reese

Baltimore’s Poe-inspired football team, the Ravens, inspired the color for the renovated Poe Room

I read so fast in those days I rarely was served with an overdue fine. My library in childhood was the Roseville Library in the Ramsey County, Minnesota, public library system. I still half-remember the kind librarian who thought I was lost because I was a ten-year-old walking very slowly the shelves teen section. I was glad she let me stay, because I really wanted to get my hands on every Rosamond Du Jardin romance on the shelf.

Almost all of us have public library branches in our towns, but this concept wasn’t an automatic right granted by city governments in the way that streets and schools and fire stations were.

Setting up a library was an expensive process, and in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gentlemen of means put in money to build libraries and stock them—and the borrowers were people of means who paid a subscription fee.

One of the most successful businessmen in 19th century Baltimore, Enoch Pratt, believed the city needed a “free, circulating library open to all, regardless of property or color.” His massive donation established a grand library that opened in 1886 with 32,000 volumes and an endowment of more than a million dollars.

The first batch of librarians at the Pratt

I got my library card here after I finished college and began writing for the Evening Sun newspaper, which was only four blocks away. I spent countless hours here on research in the Maryland Room, or browsing old books for sale at the annual benefit, and often losing myself in the fiction section.


Did I ever imagine I’d have my own book in the Pratt?

No way. I thought I would always be a reader, not a reader-writer.

For the last twenty-two years, I’ve had the honor of being in the Pratt Library’s fiction section, in the M’s. I was there today and discovered the Pratt library has a book by me I didn’t know existed. No, it’s not pirated. The unusual edition of The Satapur Moonstone with striking blue hardcover is the LARGE PRINT EDITION.

Over the last forty years or so, the library’s grandeur slowly wore down. By that I mean the brass on all the doors dulled, the painted frieze going around the grand hall faded, and antique wooden furniture on the second and third floor became scuffed and dull. Due to increasingly limited funds from the state and city, such restoration was not in the cards for a library system struggling to stay open six days a week with enough money to pay workers and computer stations for users. Not to mention, the increasing costs of paper books, ebooks, and audiobooks.

A massive campaign to fund the library’s physician revitalization began under the visionary hand of the Pratt’s former CEO Carla Hayden (our current Librarian of Congress!). Heidi Daniel assumed the CEO role and is here to preside over the grand-reopening. I haven’t met Heidi yet, but I sense through her actions a commitment to making the Pratt Library a place where everyone feels welcome. We have another first—the Pratt is now one of the country’s first “fine free” libraries.

It is gratifying to see that in this restoration, the Pratt Central Library has not become a mausoleum or museum, but has revisioned some of the gracious spaces as special areas for people working on projects together. I saw doorways leading to large, open areas  for teen-only activities and for fine arts creation.

A major focus of today’s library is assisting people in bettering their lives, primarily through finding work. There are daily workshops around the Pratt’s 22 branches to help Baltimoreans with job hunting, resume writing and issues of justice.

Recently, Baltimore Style Magazine asked me some questions about my work. They wanted a suggestion of where to take my photo, and the Pratt Central Library sprang to mind right away. The picture that appeared in the magazine has me virtually dancing through stacks. If you follow the link to Baltimore Style, look for the digital magazine and start flipping: I’m on page 54.

Here is how this fashionable escapade unfolded on the mezzanine level of a large city library. The Pratt’s PR, Meghan McCorkell, did a very professional job with these two photos she snapped.

What an unnatural pose!

Modeling is as exhausting as writing!

I was back at the Pratt again today to renew my library card. The windows were full of gorgeous paper art commissioned for the opening. I hope these works are up for a long time, they are so gorgeous.

Sarah Jung’s Open Door shows a beautiful, bustling Pratt

Papercut art by Annie Howe celebrates the Pratt’s stance in the city

Up to the mezzanine and more novels

Street door detail in brass

Once my card was in hand, I tooled around the building looking at an old world made new. I also needed a book for my writing, so I asked a  social sciences librarian to bring up a particular book on police history that I’ve borrowed a few times. it’s not on the regular shelves, but in an underground (I think) archive.

There are some libraries that offer browsers access to the archive stacks—the Pratt is not one of them. I harbor fantasies of being allowed to wallow in these secret stacks, to see what other volumes on India I might fall in love with.

Do you have a library love story?

A Writer’s Garden

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I was home for a short week between book tour traveling, and the main thing I realized was how delicious it felt to be home for spring.

The more common wish in America is to be “home for Christmas.” But Maryland’s shining moment is spring. It is a long, fruitful, blossoming season. It starts in February with crocuses, continues with daffodils and forsythia and hellebores in March, rises to tulips, azaleas, plum and cherry trees in April, and rioting roses everywhere in May and June. Maryland is not one of those places that suddenly switches to summer—it’s a very slow, enjoyable process, whether the plants are native or adopted.

It is fun for a garden enthusiast to spot gardens in  Arizona, California, Wisconsin and Washington, but I feel an urgency to get back to my ragged garden, which is only growing more outspoken every day. My husband only has so many hours in his day, so I sent out an SOS for help. I was very lucky to find a local gardener to take care of the six or so old rose bushes in the back and also attack the weeds. So when I come home, I feel pleased, rather than defeated.

During my time home I also did a lot of daily writing. It’s inevitable that these two loves, garden and book, coincide in the spring.

I believe a lot of writers like to garden. Tending flowers and writing books are quiet, meditative processes that each involve creation and reshaping. Both are hard and take years to get results. And often, an interest in gardens can begin no matter what kind of place you grew up in, because of books.

Did you read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett? I read this famous 1910 serial-turned-novel set in Yorkshire when I was a third grader living in snowy Minnesota. My mother had not yet started her odyssey into passionate gardening, so I knew nothing about gardens except for being charmed by the wildflowers that edged our paths, and climbing the sprawling old apple tree with bird-pecked fruit to read a book. I probably read The Secret Garden in that tree.

Many years later, I live in my own old house on almost an acre, which is a big lot for a house inside the city. In a few ways, it is similar to the garden experience of the fictional Mary Lennox. One certainly has to chop, tear and pull what is overgrown, but then come surprising discoveries.

Here’s one. Under a rectangular expanse of weeds that rise to happy heights every summer, there is an actual cement floor about twenty feet long by ten feet wide. It’s likely that it once was the foundation for a garage. And there are neatly paved paths throughout the garden, mostly covered by a thin layer of earth and lovely moss.

I love the moss and plants that belong to Maryland. The native plant garden I put in three years ago in the front of the house is growing so vigorously that birds have decided to secret themselves in a thicket of four-foot-high black-eyed Susans (which won’t flower until August). Daisy, the little Yorkie-Cairn terrier who lives with us, realizes the birds like to go there, so the rudbeckia forest has become her number one spot for exploration every time she goes out. As Daisy charges in, there is an explosion of feathery action. So far, nobody’s been caught!

During the brief time I was home, I worked on Perveen 3 in fresh air with the sun on my face. This is entirely possible because we have an outdoor sort of room on two sides of our houses: screened porches attached to bedrooms, in the event it is too hot to sleep inside.

I have seen photos of old sleeping porches fitted out with enough cots so the whole family could sleep in air that finally turned cool. I imagine all the story telling that went on, finally quieting down so the go-to-bed soundtrack would be left to the crickets. In those days, there might have been a nighttime call from a train, not drag-racing cars. And the wake-up alarm would have been birds.

Writing on our second floor porch is a sacrosanct ritual starting every May that lasts through September. I’ve set my porch with a vintage wicker chaise for reading and sleeping, a table for eating and writing, and a cheap old desk that faces tall trees where I stare at squirrels when I’m bored. The dogs stay with me, looking down two stories to the lane behind the house. They enjoy the power that comes with being high up and feel invincible from the wrath of those they bark at.

When I first moved into my Baltimore home, a few people suggested glassing in the sleeping porches in order to have more bathrooms. The suggestion was never taken seriously. I would never want to lose the joy of being outside-in that the porch provides. I hope whoever takes over the house after I’m gone feels the same.

A Pink Moment

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

My baby cherry tree!

These days, pink is everywhere. Millennial Pink is the official name of the soft hue that now colors chairs from Target, rose-gold phones from Apple, and yes, pink clothing for both genders. Why this soft shade now? Is it because treatment of people has become so hard? Pink is a color of childhood, whether you call it blush, petal, nude or cherry.

Cherry is a pink that simply gives me joy. The Baltimore-Washington area has a long, mild spring, and the crowning glory of our area from March through April are the cherry trees, which bloom in waves, depending on their age and variety. I grew up in snowy Minnesota reading Japanese fairytales with cherry blossom themes and books about dolls from Japan such as Rumer Godden’s 1961 delight, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Did that set me on a lifetime love of sakura trees?

One of the old-friend cherries nearing end of bloom

My street in North Baltimore has some very large, sprawling flowering cherry trees that might be older than the 40 years I’ve been told is the average cherry tree lifespan. But how old are they?

Sakura trees were brought into the United States by an American food explorer working for the US Department of Agriculture called David Fairchild. Mr. Fairchild first shipped them from Japan to his garden in Chevy Chase, MD in 1902.

President Taft’s wife, Nellie, took to heart his idea of beautifying Washington with cherry trees. It was also a difficult time in the country, when there was popular agitation over immigration of Asians. This idea was a variation of an olive branch. Could Americans see something good about Japan?

Mr. Fairchild was tasked with brokering a deal for cherry trees in the nation’s capital with the Mayor of Tokyo, who then offered them free. The first cherry trees were shipped to Washington DC in 1909; however, their roots were found to be heavily infested with insects that could have wreaked havoc across many agricultural species in the United States. These trees were burned in 1910. The Japanese who heard about it were not angry—they were sorry to have sent a defective gift and insisted on sending more. In 1912, healthy trees were planted in Washington and celebrated ever since.

I have been to the Tidal Basin to admire this sweep of cherries and see the excitement of Washington DC’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. I’ve also seen the blossoms celebrated this year in Vancouver, Canada. Cherry blossoms create a kind of worldwide party where we all stop and pay attention to nature. And in the 1990s when I lived near Yokohama, I’ve participated in Hanami parties, enjoying not just the trees but the special decorations throughout Japan and cherry-themed foods that go with the fleeting blooms.

Cherry blossom fans in downtown Vancouver

Entering their second century of life in the United States, the cherry blossom tree is no longer a fragile, exotic beauty. The City of Baltimore’s tree program donates all kinds of trees to neighborhoods where residents want them; not just cherry, but serviceberry, redbud, and others that are beautiful, yet support native insects. My street had suffered the death of several aged giant cherry trees, so an enterprising neighbor put together a plea for more cherries to go on any street in our neighborhood five years ago.

The green-leafed cherry in background is one of our grand dames

One early spring day, trained gardeners planted four seven-foot-tall trunks with bare limbs in front of my house. I bought water-bags and tucked them around the young trees, so they would have a slow release of water all the time during our hot summers. Now the trees are approaching 30 feet high and don’t need their waterbags, except in extremely prolonged heat waves. They flower several weeks after the street’s grand dame cherries, so we are fully blooming two weeks long.

I am grateful to our block’s seven new children, and four senior citizens, for showering me in pink every spring regardless of politics and fashion.

Summer in the City

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


In Spring of 2017, I hired a man to dig out the grass in front of my Baltimore, Maryland house. He thought I was crazy to pay him for that, but I had the idea of replacing the grass with a lot of perennials that are native to Maryland and Virginia. I wanted to plant food for the local bees and bugs (the good bugs, of course) and have the feeling of a full, lively cottage garden. Native gardening guru friends told me this kind of garden doesn’t need much water, because the plants are used to the climate, and such laid-back flora grows happily without special attention.

I also heard a saying that was meant to encourage me: the first year plants sleep—the second year they creep—the third year they leap!

I was pleasantly surprised to see plants getting a nice, full shape the first year. But this year, WOW. I don’t really think we can pretend anyone is creeping. The mountain mint is a monster stalking the entire space!

Lots of rain made these plants really grow, and it’s amusing to see my short dogs wandering through their personal jungle while bees buzz gently overhead.

Another thing that surprised me about my impromptu native cottage garden is how long it is taking everything to flower. With these natives, varying shades of green are what I’m stuck with for a long time. I will have to wait till August to see yellow petals on these Black-eyed Susans below, and they are already approaching 6 feet tall.

One of my goals this summer was to “be in the garden” most mornings while it’s still cool. An overdue book turned my mornings into writing sessions on the screened porch until today—July 17.

The middle of July is usually when most people stop gardening. But it’s my start date. I had a bunch of weeds to pull.

But they easily gave way. Today I did a spot-check on a Virginia Sweetspire bush advertised as “good for poor soil” that I’d planted this May. I watered it a couple of days in the beginning and then I started writing overtime and let it go without extra watering.

I think the Sweetspire, below, got mad about that.

Can I make things better for the poor shrub this late in the season? And is there any point in planting anything more in the bare dry spots…or is that insane with the 90 degree heat that lies ahead?

If you ask me, is easier to plant a garden than to write a novel; but it’s more tempting to disappear in a rewrite than to pull ivy.