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“Your mind — your curiosity — will be your comfort.”*

I recently stumbled upon yet another “Lucky Day” pick from the La Grange Library – and lucky it was!

As often happens, I was drawn to a book by its cover. I slid it off of the “Lucky Day” shelf at the library, and wondered, for a brief moment or two, why the cover looked so familiar, then realized it was reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth’s painting,  Christina’s World. Was it written by Christina? Well, of course not, but the author’s first name compelled me to read the flap of the dust jacket and to peek inside. I walked out of the library with Christina Baker Kline’s fictional novel, “A Piece of the World” and was soon engrossed in Christina’s world on the coastal farm in Cushing, Maine. The farm was settled century’s earlier by ancestors who came to escape their name, Hathorne, and the taint of the Salem Witch Trials.

Christina’s life is confined primarily to the family home in Cushing. From the earliest childhood years of her illness, her debilitating condition molds her life. From her determination to keep moving and living and making the best of her circumstances, to her later years, she stoically strives to keep moving through life. As she eventually can no longer walk, she uses her arms, then her elbows to move above, do chores in a house that is old, rundown, without indoor plumbing or adequate heating.

Christina excels in her small, country school, is encouraged to continue her education and to eventually become the school’s teacher. It is the kindness and encouragement of her teacher that gives her hope of a future, and the stubbornness and viewpoint of her father that end those dreams, taking Christina out of the school and keeping her at home, taking over her mother’s chores and diminishing her contact the outside world.

The book follows Christina’s life, from her loving relationship with her grandmother, her mysterious illness, her staunch refusal for what seems like experimental treatment, and her relationship with her brothers, especially Alvaro, and her friendship with Betsy and Andy. Betsy’s family has a summer-house in Cushing, Andy meets and eventually marries Betsy, who brings him, as a young man, to the Hathorne, now called the Olson house. He is intrigued by the house and the light and the views and spends countless days in one of the upstairs rooms, painting the scenery as well as the two remaining inhabitants of the house; Christina and Al. When Al is introduced to Andy, he is told that he is the son of N.C. Wyeth. Al remembers N. C.’s illustrations and declares that “Treasure Island” is probably the only book he ever read to the end. The house is both a blessing and a curse; a monument to history that often hold Christina and her brothers back, yet, it is a house that fascinates Andy, and it is both the anchor and the chain that confines Christina.

I loved the lyrical prose, the attention to detail, the simplicity and sparseness of words at times along with the weight of those words. I loved Christina’s fondness and instinctive understanding of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. My heart ached at her naiveté and eventual heartbreak of a relationship she was led to believe would end in marriage. I was angered by her father, an immigrant and a sailor, who lacked compassion and understanding of his fragile, strong-willed daughter.

While the book is fictitious about the friendship of Christina and Andy (Andrew Wyeth) as well as Andy’s wife, Betsy, it is based on research and known facts. It imagines the restrictive edges of Christina’s life and how she endures the hardships that surround her. “A Piece of the World”  is a captivating novel that I not only enjoyed, but, a book that led me to further exploration of the life and the illness of Christina Olson, her relationship of the Wyeths, and her family’s ancestry.

As I closed the pages of “A Piece of the World”, I remembered a trip Tom and I took to Philadelphia where we saw a retrospective exhibit of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While Christina’s World was not part of the exhibit, there were other paintings of the Olson farmhouse, and its inhabitants. It was a remarkable trip to Philly, prompted by the exhibit. I then fired up the laptop and was greeted with a discovery that had me heading to the post office as I returned “A Piece of the World”. How opportune that the USPS released these Andrew Wyeth stamps just as I closed Christina Baker Kline’s compelling novel.

 

This quote is the parting words of Christina’s teacher when Christina leaves school for the last time. *

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It has been awhile since I’ve picked a book up and was unable to put it down. I have had a good run of audio books, but, one can only spend so much time “reading” in the car, so, I took my chances when “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit” called to me at one of the libraries I frequent.

The La Grange Library has several racks of new books, movies, and audio just beyond the entryway. Upon those racks, are a few select shelves of books with a bright yellow sticker proclaiming LUCKY DAY. These are often newer releases and popular books; books readers hope to get their hands on but haven’t been able to.

Michael Finkel’s “The Stranger in the Woods . . . ” stood there, looking directly at the door as if waiting just for me to enter. On my honor, it beckoned me, held my gaze, and what was I to do? I snatched it up and moseyed on down (well, actually on up) to a comfortable spot, sat down, peeked between the covers, and promptly checked the book out.

LUCKY DAY books are granted for one only one week. They can be renewed.

A shy, intelligent, twenty year old man from a peaceful Massachusetts childhood takes off one day, leaving his family, his job, his possessions and his new car and walks into an unfamiliar Maine woods where he remains, alone, for twenty-seven years.

Chris Knight survives brutal winters and never-ending solitude hidden in a small, well hidden clearing in the forest, amazingly close to others. He is content with his existence there. No one notices him. He lives by his wits – and by burglarizing the summer cabins nearby, as well as a summer camp. He takes only what he needs to survive, including canned goods, soap, National Geographic magazines, sleeping bags, propane tanks, mattresses and batteries. He steals almost exclusively on moonless, early winter nights, hopping across rocks in the dark, never leaving tracks behind. He takes only from summer residences and the camp, leaving year-round homes untouched. He has robbed some 1,000 times.

Community members are perplexed, terrified (especially those who are robbed repeatedly) and troubled. Some blame their children or neighbors for missing things while others wonder if they are just becoming forgetful.

Chris Knight manages to avoid or disarm alarm systems, motion detectors and sensors. He is masterful at picking locks, opening windows and otherwise finding ways to enter, always leaving homes in good if depleted condition. He takes only what he needs to survive and understands that stealing is wrong!

One night, after setting up silent alarms, Sargeant Terry Hugh’s’ beeper goes off. He catches the thief, demands he hit the ground, calls in reinforcements and thus begins the end of decades of robbery and the beginning of this story about the fabled hermit, now known as Chris Knight.

Michael Finkel, a journalist who lives in Montana, first hears on the news of the arrest of Chris Knight, a loner with a hermit-like existence. He is curious about a man who had not spoken or interacted with anyone in more than two decades. Mr. Finkel writes a letter, includes copies of some of his own stories and sends them to Knight in prison. They correspond and Finkel eventually visits him there, attends his trial, and eventually writes this captivating story. I suspect will one day be a movie.

“The Stranger in the Woods; The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit ” was an enthralling narrative of 200 or so pages – and it left me hoping that no hermits were living here along the Cutoff.

Have you read an “un-put-downable” recently?

 

 

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“We walked in so pure and bright a light… I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or a murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of elysium,and the sun on our backs seemed like a gentle herdsman, driving us home at evening.”
-From “Walking” by Henry Thoreau; 1862

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Goji berries, rustic outdoor furniture, antique carts, solar panels, country charm and ingenuity; all this and more at Cherry Lane Farm, which was opened to visitors as part of the McHenry County Farm Stroll.

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Trudi Temple is a well-recognized gardener, entrepreneur, author and speaker, especially in the Chicagoland area. I have had the pleasure of touring her private garden in the western suburbs, reading her inspiring book, “Trudi’s Garden; The Story of Trudi Temple”, and, like many of you, I have ordered from Market Day@, which Trudi established.

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Cherry Lane Farm was our first stop on the Farm Stroll, and we were one of the first visitors. We parked the car and followed a path that meandered through a woodland garden, which was cloistered inside a handmade waddle fence. Bird houses dangled from stately trees and perched upon tree trunks.

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Age-old benches and found objects, heirloom plants and new introductions abound on Trudi’s farm; a living testament to what hard work, creativity and sustainability can yield.

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We wandered the paths, some under the multitude trees rooted on the property, others leading to the vegetable garden, or the wide pasture where a wind turbine was generating energy. We sat in a magnificent gazebo – surely a haven for family and friends. With all the nature and creativity that surrounded us, what impressed me the most was the evidence of the far-reaching visions of Trudi Temple. She is a remarkable woman whose respect for nature continues to grow and instructs all who find their way to Cherry Lane Farm.

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A barn houses plant materials that Trudi uses in arrangements, as well as a shop for antiques, books, dried floral arrangements and other delights. An outbuilding is creatively sided with reclaimed windows of different sizes and shapes. Inside sit long tables, for workshops, I assume, and a patchwork of quilts adorn the walls.

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It was such a pleasant day.

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We bumped into three members of my garden club, all in groups of their own and all pointing or asking if we had seen this or that, enthusiastically sharing what they had discovered. Even strangers were friends for the moments in time at Cherry Lane Farm. It isn’t often that a piece of land and a crop of buildings is so lovingly developed  that it creates such a wholesome sense of place.

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IMG_8077As with many adventures, ours began in a train station; the Riverside train station, to be exact. A group of 23 garden club members met in this historic depot for a customized tour of six private gardens, led by several docents of the Frederick Law Olmsted Society.

The entire town of Riverside, formed in 1868, was designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The entire town of Riverside has a National Historic Landmark designation and is often referred to as the town in a forest. The quaint downtown with its unique tower is the centerpiece of Riverside; a town with gently winding streets, a variety of stately trees and boulevards that meander, much like the nearby Des Plaines River,  down charming lanes reminiscent of another era and past homes designed by noted architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright.

Frederick Law Olmsted is widely regarded as the founder of American landscape architecture.

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Our tour was arranged by the conservation and education committee as we wrapped up our garden club’s 90th anniversary year. We were hoping to see how a town can develop in harmony with nature. We decided to tour Riverside (the past) and visit a relatively new enterprise in nearby Brookfield, Root 66. The owner of Root 66 gave us a program on hydroponics and aquaponics (the future) at our June meeting.

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As we “motored in our machines” to the gardens, our cars in procession, hazard lights blinking, racing through town at about 20 mph, we must have looked like a funeral procession. Some of the gardens were more fitting to the architecture and era of the home with prairie type plantings and natives, while others were more precise and controlled. We viewed the grounds of the Avery Coonley Playhouse, designed by Wright, as well as five other gardens.

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I found it to be a delightful and inspiring adventure, tired but smiling as I got back into my car at the Riverside train station, where our adventure began.

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Oh, sweet goodness – the anticipation was worth the wait! IMG_7748 - Version 2

Months after the expertly seamed conclusion of one of my all-time favorite television series, I was finally able to feel the grandeur of Downton Abbey’s exquisite costuming at Chicago’s Dreihaus Museum’s exhibit, Dressing Downton: Changing Fashions for Changing Times. 

My dear friend, Bev, and I were fortunate to be able to enter the Dreihaus Museum and quickly purchase our entry. We leisurely wandered through the exhibit, with knowledgeable staff directing us so seamlessly through the rooms that I imagined Mrs. Hughs hidden behind the curtains orchestrating it all.

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These period costumes with their historical accuracy and styling, bejeweled and draped, were nothing short of magnificent. Whether intricately embroidered with flowers or capped with feathers and jewels, it was easy to slip into the London Season of the early 20th Century, or a nurse’s uniform with Lady Sybil.

I was as in awe of the craftsmanship of the costumes as I was of the sleek figures of the actors who wore these period clothes.

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Characters always look larger than life on a screen, even a television screen. Becoming so intimately aware of their actual physical size is amazing. I had a renewed appreciation for the seamstresses and costume designers, as I did for those who spend an inordinate amount of time researching period dress. While Downton Abbey is a fictional story, it depicts specific decades, with the mores, customs, historical background, and issues of the times. It was enlightening to see this exhibit and the clothes and adornments of the characters which so beautifully illustrate the time period.

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This was a breathtaking exhibit, in the company of a dear friend, inside a historic turn-of-the-century mansion on the world renowned Gold Coast of Chicago.

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Oh! I almost forgot the Dowager  .  . .

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DSCN4952 - Version 2 The thing is, be they chance encounters with passersby, chats with long-time friends or are brief interviews by design, conversations can lead us to new and unexpected horizons.

My recent visit with one centenarian led me to moments of contemplative solitude reading the words of another. Stanley Kunitz’s words and my mention of these encounters in turn led to insightful conversations with friends closer to my own age.

 I am nowhere near my own century mark, nor am I a spring chicken. I have a few outward scars from surgeries, accidents, and gravity – and a few inward ones that we all acquire in life, but, the thing is, I am still here.

I have pondered at how quickly the years have passed and how they now seem to speed faster and faster by. The thing is, I AM still here, in relatively good health, with a loving family, wonderful friends, and a consistent flow of possibilities.

I do not know if I will make it to 100 years, or,  if I do, that I will be as lucid and capable as the two centenarians that are roaming around in my thoughts. I do know that they can be a benchmark. My benchmark. A new benchmark.  My own aging expectations have not been that high. You see, my father passed away at 52 and my mother was just turning 67, but, what if 100 is the new goal post? That would mean I’m actually still in my middle ages, and you, perhaps, aren’t even yet middle-aged, and on and on we go.

. . . And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game . . .   Joni Mitchell

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