Love letter from a COVID-19 foxhole

When you have been socially distancing for too long during COVID-19

There is, I think, cause for optimism, even though the war is just beginning. No doubt, the next couple weeks will be a bumpy ride. Maybe you are one of the fortunate soldiers like me, charged with staying home and flattening the curve. Stationed at my home office, I stand in awe of the health care workers who are serving on the frontlines, risking exposure to coronavirus as they go about their jobs. Their dedication is a daily reminder of the very best of humanity. Here in my Chicago neighborhood, I felt the love, too.

Earlier this week, a neighbor sent out a group email to everyone on our block. He wanted to identify those who would be able to help secure food and supplies for neighbors in need and those who would potentially need assistance. Right away, a whole lot of hands went up with offers to volunteer.

On Monday I had a long phone call with an old friend. We hadn’t done that in quite a while because there never seemed to be time. As we talked, I was sitting in my backyard. It was a cool day, but I felt the sun on my face. I saw a cardinal and noticed all the sprouting plants in my garden.

On Tuesday, I drove over to my favorite local bakery and dinette, Baker Miller, on Lincoln Avenue.  Since all Illinois restaurants are currently closed, Dave, the owner, set up a curbside pickup window. He waved to me when I pulled up. It was raining that morning, and before I even got out of my car, a cheery millennial came running out with my brown bag of lovingly baked sourdough.

Yesterday, my best friend and I exchanged thirty-some texts. We covered a lot of ground, including virus anxiety, recipes for a pandemic, and the latest on our kids. Another close friend has planned a virtual cocktail party. You can practice social distancing without feeling alone.


This is not to downplay the seriousness of our situation. When the pandemic is at last behind us, some will have lost loved ones and fortunes. But I have a feeling that we won’t take things for granted the way we did before. We might finally understand how much we need one another and how one person’s welfare impacts everyone’s welfare. It is just possible that humanity might emerge transformed for the better.

Painting by Mark Zlotkowski
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The longest night of the year

Winter sunsetLong before Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the third century AD, long before the custom of Christmas became a worldwide phenomenon, cultures across the globe celebrated Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this mysterious event occurs when the tilt of the Earth puts us at the farthest distance from the sun, after which every day grows a minute or two longer and every night a minute or two shorter. As it is with Earth, so it seems with our individual and collective lives; spring follows winter, light overcomes darkness, again and again, as our great religions proclaim.

Ice QueenMeteorological winter is only beginning, but it sometimes feels as though the barren season has long been with us. Millions lack food, medical care, safe housing, or basic human rights. To tune in to the nightly news is to wonder if we have been condemned to an eternal winter of despair by the White Witch, as was the Kingdom of Narnia. If we are to find any peace amidst the chaos, the great sages advise, we have to seek it within ourselves.

Christmas treeJesus Christ urged his followers to love their enemies, to refrain from judgment, to care for the least among us.  His words offer a way to respond to unfathomable suffering, to seek transformative wisdom.  Those who follow Christ and believe the story of His Holy birth are sometimes thought naïve or ignorant of science. Improbable miracles are not unique to Christianity. The Talmud tells us of Hanukkah, the wonder of the single cruse of oil that lit the temple Menorah for eight days. Buddhist texts tell of Guatama Buddha’s miraculous powers of telepathy, super hearing, and seeing of past lives. Think what you will of the ancient stories, I hold them dear.Menorah

On the silent, joyful nights of Advent, Hannukah, and Kwanza, on the eve of solstice, we are surrounded by the strange, the otherworldly, the glorious. Beyond the supernatural wonders are extraordinary human feats.  There are the peacemakers and educators working to build up their communities and vulnerable neighbors. There are the healthcare workers caring for us on the home front and in war-torn countries. There are the spiritual leaders tirelessly reminding us of our divine, lost lineage. There are the artists who share their beautiful and inspired visions. These Earth angels give us many reasons to believe.

BuddhaIn the bleak days of winter, when darkness falls early, when the sad events of the day weigh heavily upon us, we can set down our phones, turn off the news, and think about every day miracles. You have probably experienced at least one or two in your life.  And we can celebrate, in our assorted ways, the victory of light over darkness.

From the writer’s desk, wishing you peace and joy this holiday season.Mary A. Oborne

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Intelligent design and the imagined world

René Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician, imagined the cosmos as a complex machine operating according to precise mechanical laws. His theory implies the existence of a designer, a benevolent Creator or watchmakerand describes an ordered elegance that seems counter to the madness of modern life. Joining Descartes and Newton—the men of the scientific revolution—writers and poets seek patterns amid chaos and explanations for the inexplicable.


The desire for order drives me to my desk, where I get to devise the plots and the characters conform to my whims. If only my city and my world would follow the structure of a novel. At the climax, the turning point, the good guys would emerge from their struggles better off than they were before.

Writers write stories, not the daily news. And yet we are, collectively, writing the story of our destiny. Just maybe we can write an ending other than tragedy. There are many among us—teachers, nurses, and counselors, to name a few—who do their jobs every day, trying to make it better. Good works create impact, as do beliefs.Imagine

What we imagine for our lives becomes our reality. Jesus, Buddha, and the mystics all tell us that what we dwell upon comes to pass. From the book of Matthew: “According to your faith be it done unto to you.” If this is so, collective pessimism, regardless of good works, will do nothing to lead us out of the mire.

Mindset is a choice, offered by the watchmaker, who stepped aside once his job was done. Negativity might seem the more natural attitude, in light of current events. But oh, how much better it is to imagine peace than annihilation.  John Lennon wrote it best. Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

AuthorDoes this mean all my books will have happy endings? Hmmm. It will be a while before I know for sure. The Last of the Magicians, my third historical, is on slow cooker mode while I work to complete a commissioned biography. (More on that later.)  A writer has to eat as well as dream.

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Making art while our beds are burning

Women's March Chicago 2017

I’ve been worried about things like climate change, clean air and water, nuclear war, women’s and immigrants’ rights, corporate greed, racism, and affordable health care. So many causes, so little time.  I try to be a good citizen by doing things like writing my congressmen and volunteering as an ESL tutor for refugees.  But as a novelist rather than a political activist, it’s not my forte.  As such, I’m more or less okay with spending countless hours researching 17th century England and working on my third novel, The Last of the Magicians. This doesn’t mean I’m burying my head in the sand. Midnight Oil’s song comes to mind.

The writer's desk

How can we dance when our earth is turning
How do we sleep while our beds are burning

The world is on fire.  The problems we face are grave and time critical, and how we respond matters enormously.  We can respond by voting, protesting, running for office, canvassing.  And if we’re writers, painters, musicians, and actors, the very process of creating art is an exercise in freedom of expression and an act of defiance against the status quo. The artist is the ultimate free spirit who flies in the face of complacency and never pauses to ask, “what’s the use?”

Paul Gauguin: Les Miserables 1888

Artists have always been revolutionaries, have always been creating profound impact.  Confronted with numerous obstacles and a distracted world that often forgets their value,  artists will go on celebrating the beautiful, exposing truth, defying conformity, and decrying injustice till the end of time.

So no, making art and writing novels is not escapism.  It is an act of patriotism, a symbol of the enduring human spirit.  While the earth is burning, I will be right here at my desk, much of the time, writing a novel.

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Artist Waylaid: Michelangelo’s stint as a defense engineer

Michelangelo's David

Michelangelo's David

Artists, writers, creatives, take heart; even Michelangelo was waylaid from his vocation as a sculptor when practical demands required that he direct his efforts elsewhere for a time. The master of Renaissance art was obliged to set aside his excellent plans to carve Hercules from a block of marble when the governor of Florence requested that he build defense towers instead. Perhaps Michelangelo complained, but he apparently rose to the task on behalf of his beloved Republic. Still, I cannot help but think he yearned to return to his art all the while. This episode of the great artist’s life both fascinates and inspires patience.  As I stand before a boulder in the road to writing my third novel, I take particular comfort in Michelangelo’s travail.

The Pietà

Michelangelo's Pietà

Michelangelo Buonarotti’s drawings for the fortifications of Florence, made in 1528-9. Courtesy of the Casa Buonarotti, Florence, Italy.

One of Michelangelo’s drawings for the fortifications of Florence, made in 1528-9. Courtesy of the Casa Buonarotti, Florence, Italy. From

While Michelangelo is remembered for sublime works such as the Pietà and the David, he is less well known as an architect of fortifications. But in 1529 Michelangelo’s talent for working with stone was put to practical use. At this time, Pope Clement sought to vanquish the independent Republic of Florence and the enemies of the Medicis and to restore the family dynasty to power. Abetting the effort to obstruct the Pope’s plan, Michelangelo was appointed the position of “General Governor and Procurator of the fortifications of Florence.” In this capacity he was charged with designing the towers and walls that would protect the city-state from invasion. Detailed drawings for these plans illustrate the considerable depth to which the artist was occupied with this project. So impressive were his bastions, in fact, that the greatest architect of fortifications of the seventeenth century, Vauban, looked to Michelangelo’s plans for inspiration. (The Art Bulletin 22.3 (1940): 127-37. JSTOR. College Art Association. Web.

Mary's house in LakeviewLike Michelangelo, I now find myself in a situation that necessitates a shift from creative pursuit to practical endeavor. Rather than focus on my first draft of The Last of the Magicians, I am now thoroughly occupied with the business of buying and remodeling a new house, and eventually moving.  This all came about rather unexpectedly, for I had no intention of selling my present house in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. But as fate would have it, someone, quite literally, appeared at my door and made an offer that a prudent person would not refuse (although I did refuse for a while).

My office

The little office where much of Alchemy's Daughter and Nonna's Book of Mysteries were written

Have I prostituted my writing life for some cash? Perhaps. But more likely, I have bought myself more time to write in the future. Michelangelo returned to sculpting after the war, and I will return to writing in earnest once I am settled into my new place.  It is a lesson in learning to go where the current takes you, and perhaps also in accepting a plan for your life that is bigger than your own. Alchemy’s Daughter and Nonna’s Book of Mysteries were both written in between the demands of being a single mom, landlord, and a part-time nurse.  One way or other, book number three, The Last of the Magicians, will get written as well. We all get waylaid from our dreams at times. Keep the faith and know the boulders in the road will eventually be moved.

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Diving in and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Starting my new book, not without trepidation

While waiting for the right time to begin that novel you’ve been thinking about, or to take that trip or write that song, the days march on.  We give our precious time to obligations that have nothing at all to do with our heartfelt dreams.  Or when the opportunity finally arises, we feel overwhelmed by the size of the task and don’t know where to begin. I feel this way every time I start a new book (as in now) or essay.  There is just one thing to be done: dive in.

Begin anywhere, begin badly.  Almost all writers write terrible rough drafts, initial pages are crumpled into balls and tossed in the waste basket.  I’m pretty sure that little of what I wrote today is salvageable, but that’s beside the point.  I know that if I keep writing, and if I persist through a very long and painful struggle, the story will unfold.  The only obstacle is an over abundance of caution, a fear of failure, the caution of T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock:

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?

Don’t be like Alfred.  Be willing to look a little foolish and have fun with it.  There is no time like today to reach for your heart’s desire.

Daring to eat a peach
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The best headstrong young women, and Walt Whitman

Amelia Earhart

Like the heroine of Alchemy’s Daughter, I have occasionally been described as “headstrong” by those closest to me.  I take this as a compliment, despite the negative connotations of the word.  Without a degree of willfulness, how else is a girl to make her way in a world fraught with obstacles?  Becoming an author or achieving most any worthwhile goal requires focus, commitment to the end goal, and even occasional disregard for the opinions and feelings of others.  It is not possible to be a people-pleaser all the time while also setting out to achieve your dream.

Sally Ride

If a woman chooses a career in a competitive field–especially a field that has been traditionally dominated by men–a  stubborn nature has to be cultivated.  Astronaut Sallie Ride, conservationist and author Rachel Carson, and aviation pioneer  Amelia Earhart surely did not succeed by going with the flow and caring overmuch about the opinions of others.

Walt Whitman

When I began setting serious time aside to write and chose to give up a full-time nursing position, I ruffled some feathers, as my female role models surely did.  A few family members could be heard grumbling about my impractical venture.  Who does she think she is? Why give up full-time work to write when you have a child to support? Like Santina Pietra of Alchemy’s Daughter, I knew that not pursuing the dream would be a sort of death.  Better to do as Walt Whitman says in “Passage to India” and “steer for the deep waters only,or take a risk in life.

Today I am sharing Laura Fabiano’s review (and Rafflecopter giveaway) of Alchemy’s Daughter as published on her wonderful site, Essentially Italian. Laura describes the book’s heroine as strong and willing to make a bold move to defy convention.  I have nothing against social conventions, but sometimes it is entirely appropriate to ignore them.

Sail forth — steer for the deep waters only,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

Walt Whitman, Passage to India

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Harper Lee, the sadness of Go Set a Watchman, and virtual tours

To Kill a Mockingbird

With the release of Go Set a Watchman, I have been thinking of the beloved author Harper Lee and wondering, like many of her fans, if she ever really intended for this book to be published. Something is not quite right about the sudden appearance of the “long forgotten” manuscript in the hands of Lee’s attorney.  After all, Lee, who is now 89, ailing, and living in an assisted living facility, had plenty of opportunities to publish the book earlier, had she been so inclined. By many accounts, Go Set a Watchman is the failed, first draft of her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. I can’t help but feel that the shy author, known to turn away interviews and who went running from the NY publishing world back to the safety of her hometown after To Kill a Mockingbird became hit, did not simply loose track of the old manuscript among her archives. More likely, Lee buried the manuscript in a drawer and fully intended it to stay there.

Harper LeeHarper Lee chose to live a quiet, reclusive life after the colossal success of her first novel, and she was known to turn away interviews. Although she eschewed publicity, I think a virtual tour might have been more palatable to her. From the comforts of her Monroeville, Alabama home, she could have penned answers to bloggers’ questions without stepping foot in NY or inside a TV station.

Emily Bronte

Shy author, Emily Brontë

The virtual world makes armchair tourism possible these days. As an author, I love the fact that I can circle the Internet with my new book, Alchemy’s Daughter, and speak with hundreds of people from the comfort of my Wrigleyville office. It’s true that I am something of a shy author, like Harper Lee, Emily Bronte, and C.S. Lewis.  A lot of us writers are that way, and it’s often the reason we started writing in the first place.

Italy Book Tours has done a wonderful job setting up my virtual tour. At each of the Alchemy’s Daughter stops, you can enter the Rafflecopter drawing for a chance to win a free copy. You’ll also hear a few stories about my years-long process of writing Alchemy’s Daughter, which was once a book called The Cloth Merchant’s Daughter. By the way, if anyone ever tries to publish The Cloth Merchant’s Daughter when I’m an old lady with dementia, you heard it right here that it was never my intention for that book to be published.

Medieval cloth merchant

Medieval cloth merchant, like Santina Pietra's father in Alchemy's Daughter

Alchemy’s Daughter Full blog tour and giveaway schedule:

July 13 – Studentessa Matta – review / giveaway
July 13 – Babs Book Bistro – review / author interview / giveaway
July 14 – Working Mommy Journal – review / giveaway
July 14 – Dreams Come True Through Reading – review
July 15 – Confessions of a Reader – review / author interview
July 15 – Il Mio Tesoro – review / author interview
July 16 – ABookGeek – review / giveaway
July 16 – – review / giveaway
July 17 – Unshelfish – review / guest post / giveaway
July 20 – T’s Stuff – review / guest post / giveaway
July 21 – Rockin’ Book Reviews – review / guest post / giveaway
July 21 – In This World of Books – review / giveaway
July 22 – A Simple Life, really!? – review
July 22 – Jayne’s Books – review
July 23 – Griperang’s Bookmarks – review / author interview / giveaway
July 23 – Essentially Italian – review / author interview / giveaway
July 24 – Vic’s Media Room – review /
July 27 – The Autistic Gamer – review
July 27 – Svetlana’s Reads and Views – review
July 28 – Just One More Chapter – review / giveaway
July 29 – Pure Jonel – review / guest post / giveaway
July 30 – Jorie Loves a Story – review
July 31 – Library of Clean Reads – review / giveaway

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Alchemy’s Daughter Italy book tour and giveaway starts today!

Italy Book Tours July 13, 2015 marks the start of the Alchemy’s Daughter Italy Book Tour, which features books related to Italian culture.  Please join me for this fun virtual trip and enter the tour sponsor’s Rafflecopter giveaway for a chance to win one of the free copies that will be given away at the conclusion of the tour on July 31. Santa Croce

To kick off the tour, I am stopping today at Babs Book Bistro, where I offer some behind the scenes information about my the heroine’s love interest, my background as an RN, and my research on the topic of medieval midwifery.

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Secrets behind Alchemy’s Daughter to be revealed in July blog tour

Florence Italy


Novels are fiction, of course, and yet many novels contain elements from the author’s life. While  Alchemy’s Daughter is a work of my imagination, I drew from childhood experiences, my nursing background, travels to Italy, and even previous romances–maybe even romance gone bad–when writing this book.  I hope you’ll join me for my upcoming Italy Book Tours virtual tour this July, when I’ll be sharing several behind the scenes stories about the making of this tale of medieval midwifery, romance, and  alchemy.

The upcoming tour will conclude with an Alchemy’s Daughter raffle.  So be sure to follow the tour for a chance to win one of the free copies that will be given away!  The tour begins on July 13 and ends July 31.  Stay tuned!

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