I practiced a visualization all through last winter, one I returned to again and again as I sat alone writing in my son Henry’s upstairs bedroom. In my mind’s eye I saw my friend Margaret Roach at my side, finished books in our hands, the two of us doing a reading together.
Margaret, I knew, was holed up in her own snug little house three hours from mine, working on her garden memoir, “The Backyard Parables.” Most mornings, before settling down to serious work, we would send each other a Skype greeting.
“You ok up there?” she’d type, usually around 6 am, the hour both of us consider the best for getting any real thinking done.
“Yes,” I’d type back. “Plugging away.”
“I’m here,” Margaret would answer. And somehow, just knowing that she was, brought me comfort. We were a writers’ group of two, with book deadlines just weeks apart. Whenever the going got tough, as it seemed to at some point in nearly every day, either one of us could reach out. Commiseration was never more than a click away.
We didn’t show each other our manuscripts until we had both finished writing – among other quirks we have in common is a need to work in deep privacy. But when Margaret came to the end a few weeks before I did, I felt inspired to push onward myself – I knew she was waiting for me at the finish line, eager to exchange our first drafts.
What we found, as we each began to read, was perhaps inevitable. Margaret was chronicling a year in the garden she has loved and tended for twenty-five years. And I was writing about the challenges of adjusting to a new stage of life without children at home. Yet it turned out that, unbeknownst to either of us, many of our themes were identitical: loss, change, acceptance, transformation, aging, gratitude, grace.
Some of the parallels made us laugh as we scribbled exclamation notes in the margins: Turned out we had both stood in front of our respective bathroom mirrors, tugging our middle-aged, crepey neck skin up and back, contemplating the very distant possibility of a nip or tuck to tighten things up beneath the chin.
But we also realized, as we read one another’s work, that perhaps what had seemed unique to each of us as we labored away in solitude is in fact universal: married or single, mother or childless, employed or not, rich or poor, gay or straight, each and every one of us must eventually find a way to navigate the tricky passage between youth and age.
It seems that the great challenge of our middle years is to figure out how to move into and through the second half of life with joy. Joy even in the face of inevitable loss; equanimity even in the face of relentless change; wisdom and grace even as old roles and old dreams fall away and new ones are slow to take shape. We may travel different paths through life, and yet perhaps there is no woman anywhere who doesn’t long at some point for an inner road map, some kind of guidance as we are called to release our illusions of control, to let go of who we once were and to embrace who we have become.
Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me at all that my friend and I have both spent the last couple of years quietly grappling with these very challenges – for aren’t these also the topics of conversation whenever women come together and summon the courage to drop our public faces and share our true struggles and stories?
As it turned out, our publisher decided to bring our books out within a week of each other. And suddenly, it seemed that my sustaining vision – the two of us together, holding finished books in our hands – might actually become a reality. In October, at the New England Independent Booksellers’ Association meeting, we tried our idea out on some booksellers.
“You can have us separately if you want,” we said. “But we’d also be happy to come to your store together.” By the end of the weekend, we had a whole list of bookstores that liked the idea of our “duet.” And so it was that last week, the two of us sat side by side on a couple of stools at Margaret’s house and read aloud for the first time, to a room full of invited guests – our dress rehearsal, so to speak, to make sure the program we’ve been imagining all these months would actually work.
Wine was poured, dinner was eaten, and the conversation flowed. Our test audience was kind and enthusiastic, and the passages we chose to read seemed to speak to one another in two-part harmony – two friends, two lives, two voices, two books, with much in common and much to share. By the end of the evening, a room full of women who had arrived as strangers to one another were all chatting like old friends. I looked around and took a moment simply to allow myself to be grateful: for cameraderie and home made cookies, and also for the deep, spontaneous connections that the written word, when shared aloud, can always inspire.
“That was pretty fun,” Margaret and I agreed the next day over lunch, as we ate some lentil soup I’d brought to share with her. And so, come January, we are taking this show on the road.
In the meantime, learn more about our friendship, and The Backyard Parables: Lessons on Gardening, and Life at Margaret’s blog, A Way to Garden.
But perhaps the best way I can introduce you to my friend is by sharing her video with you. (To watch mine, just click HERE.)
It was Margaret’s idea to share the soup recipe as well. That’s below, followed by a list of all our joint appearances this winter. Mark your calendars! We’d love to meet you.
lentil soup, adapted by katrina
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 red onion, chopped finely, or one large shallot chopped
- 1 leek, white part only, chopped finely
- 2 celery branches, diced finely
- 4 twigs of thyme, chopped finely
- ½ teaspoon saffron
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 3 branches of parsley or cilantro, plus more to garnish
- sea salt and pepper
- large can of diced tomatoes with their juice
- 2 tablespoons double concentrate tomato paste
- 2 cups dry French green lentils
- 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
- 2 cups peeled and diced ‘Butternut’ squash
- 4 cups water
- 2 cups white wine (or vegetable broth)
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 garlic cloves, finely minced
- In large pot, heat oil, add thyme, cumin, turmeric, shallot, leek, celery, and cook, stirring, about 5 minutes, till veggies are softening.
- Add tomatoes, tomato paste, cook one minute.
- Add lentils, carrots, squash, cook one-two minutes.
- Add water, wine, bay leaves, cilantro, season w. salt and pepper, cover and simmer till lentils are tender, about 25 minutes.
- To serve: Ladle soup into deep bowls, top with a poached egg, a heaping tablespoon of creme fraiche (sour cream or yogurt can substitute), chopped cilantro or parsley leaves, and a dash of paprika.
(Recipe liberally adapted from “La Tartine Gourmande: Recipes for an Inspired Life” by Beatrice Peltre)
about our upcoming events
Margaret and I will be reading together from our two new books, “The Backyard Parables: Lessons on Gardening, and Life” and “Magical Journey” An Apprenticeship in Contentment,” at bookstores and other venues around the Northeast this winter. Come join in our conversation–or invite us to visit your library or bookstore or book group (virtually by Skye, or in person) by emailing using this contact form.
- Saturday, January 19, 2 PM: at R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, CT.
- Saturday, January 26, afternoon: at Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, VT.
- Sunday, January 27, 3 PM: at Buttonwood Books, Cohasset, MA.
- Wednesday, January 30, 7 PM: at New England Mobile Book Fair bookshop, Newton Highlands, MA.
- Sunday, February 24, 3 PM: at the Concord (MA) Bookshop.
- Thursday, February 28, evening: at the Arts Center of the Capital Region, Troy, NY, hosted by memoir-teacher and author Marion Roach Smith.
- Saturday, March 2, 1-3 PM: at Berkshire Botanical Garden, Stockbridge, MA.
- Sunday, March 3, 3 PM: at Battenkill Books, Cambridge, NY. (I’ll do a “365-Day Garden” lecture that same day at Battenkill, starting at 2 PM.)