New Year comes around again

The new beginnings of January.  The time to start afresh, to set resolutions, to make goals and step boldly into the bright shiny future. 

Or, you know, don’t.


As 2018 closed, our family had to say a sudden goodbye to our beloved Misty.  She is the cat I called “sweet but somewhat dimwitted” in my About page.  At the tender and unexplainable age of 8, Misty suffered from complete kidney failure and died in my arms on December 29th.  We are still trying to process the reality of her loss, even as we engage in the daily discussion of how and when to replace the cat-sized hole in our hearts.

As 2018 closed, friends were in the hospital, others were moving away, neighbors were struggling with devastating diagnosis, the government was partially shut down, our leaders were shifting while our problems grow in direct proportion to our animosity towards one another.  Someone make it STOP, I want to yell, but there is no answer.  Just a large vet bill and a litter box no one can bring themselves to empty.

And yet, 2018 ended and 2019 began.  We hung up new calendars in our house and packed away the Christmas ornaments.   Despite everything, a small glimmer of hope dawns with the new year.  A burst of optimism seeps out between the cracks and the tears.  This is the year, we say; this year we will lose the weight, accomplish the goal, be a better person, make the changes we keep talking about.

Will it?  I don’t know.  2018 was a good year for my writing.  I now have three manuscripts in various stages of completion and am getting ready to pursue publication in some form.  I enlarged my writing community, connecting with many other writers in Austin and was a founding member of the Central Texas Chapter of the Historical Novel Society.   We did not travel last year, spending most of our money on medical and vet bills, but we had enough to cover them without debt, so that’s a victory.

As I begin to make goals for 2019, writing is at the top of the list.  May this be the year my writing finds a home out in the world.  May this be the year sanity and civility return to our country.  May this be the year we reach out to others with compassion and friendship and a helping hand.   May this be a year of hellos and not goodbyes.  May your year be blessed, and may you be a blessing to others.

Posted in Family, Writing | 1 Comment

On Mortar and Mothers

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about mortar.  You know, that goopy stuff that goes between bricks or stones and holds them all together?  Mortar.

You’ve never given it much thought, have you?  Neither had I until I began learning a lot about stonemasonry to write a book about a stonemason.  Turns out, there’s quite a bit to know about mortar.

These days there are two main types of mortar: lime mortar and Portland cement.  Lime mortar has been around since ancient days, used by the Egyptians in the pyramids at Giza and by the Romans and Greeks.  Portland cement was first developed in the 19th century and became widely used in the later part of that century and early in the 20th.  Nowadays, mortars are usually made from a mixture of the two.

The process of making traditional lime mortar is an arduous and time consuming one.  First limestone is heated at a high temperature to remove the carbon dioxide, leaving calcium oxide or quicklime.  This is then mixed with water, stirred or beaten, and left to age for several months after which it forms a soft putty which can be mixed with sand or another aggregate to form the mortar.  Rushing the process causes weak or inferior mortar.

Lime mortar and Portland cement differ in their strength and permeability.  Portland cement is stronger and can be used with heavy modern concrete building.  Lime mortar is more porous or permeable, allowing older buildings to breath and release moisture. 

One phrase I read repeatedly was that mortar is the sacrificial element of the masonry process.  Mortar should be weaker than the masonry units it holds together.  This is so that when stresses occur, any damage is taken by the mortar, which is easier to repair or replace than the stone or brick.  Mortar is the piece designed to break or crack when stressed to protect the stone and to absorb any unwanted moisture, thus protecting the stone or brick from moisture damage.  If the mortar is stronger than the stone or brick that surrounds it, any breakage or stress will affect the stones rather than the glue.

I would submit that as mothers, we are the mortar of the family.  We absorb the stresses, the tears and tears of family life and thus allow the rest of the family units to hold their shape. Whether your kids are preschoolers or teenagers, they look to you to comfort their hurts and offer guidance when they’re out of their depths.  They push and pull at the restraints you may put on them, but I believe they are happy to know you provide structure and boundaries.  When the storms of life come, I can comfort myself knowing that I am acting as the mortar for my family.  What mother would not choose to bear the cracks for her children?  It’s not always pleasant to absorb the hits, but to see your kids succeed, stand strong, victorious and beautiful will be worth it.

Those old buildings that are still standing after hundreds of years?  It’s because of their mortar.  The lime mortar that was used has absorbed all the stress and damage to the building and allowed the stones themselves to remain unharmed.  Those families that seem to have withstood the external pressures of life with grace and dignity, who remain together despite tragedy?  I bet they have a great mother acting as the mortar, the glue keeping them all together.  Like mortar, mothers get stronger by withstanding the heat of fires, by being subjected to stirrings, beatings (psychological and unfortunately sometimes physical), and time.  Our strength holds the family together and often takes the damage so that others might be spared.

Here's to mothers and mortar everywhere!  We’re the glue that keeps everything and everyone together.

Posted in Architecture/stonemasonry, Family | 1 Comment

The eBook Question.

I recently took a class taught by Anna Castle on self-publishing in which she asked the audience how many had read an ebook.  Most attendees raised their hands, including myself.  Then I got to thinking.  Sure, I read ebooks.  I buy ebooks or download free ones onto my Kindle.  I have quite the library of ebooks.  Doesn’t everyone?

Then I thought some more.  Have I ever actually read an ebook from start to finish?  Perusing my collection, I found downloaded versions of classics that I have read in paper form, many self-published books that I have started but not finished, and some devotionals I have dipped into from time to time, but nothing I could say I had read “cover to cover”.  Something needed to change.

There was a book I had wanted to read for awhile, Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell.  Some time earlier I had seen a copy of the ebook for a low price and purchased it.  Some time later I had begun to read it.  I managed to get through about half and then abandoned.  (Do we see a pattern?)

I was determined to finish it.  It took about two days to finish it, the pace of both the book and my reading picking up towards the end.  Now I can say with certainty that I have read an ebook.

Why did I stop reading this ebook and put it aside for months?  The book seemed to drag on in the middle, the plot twisting around the same point repetitively.  Would I have done the same if I had read it in paper version?  Possibly, but I suspect not.

What took me so long to finish an ebook?  The answer lies in a variety of reasons.  For one, I just enjoy the feel of paper in my hand.  I like the heft of a thick book, the cover and front and back matter, and the march of a book mark as it travels through the pages.  I can see all the advantages of ebooks (less shelf space, easy to travel with, etc.), but I still just prefer paper.  I still like to write longhand onto paper with an actual pen as well, so just call me old school.

Second, I tend to not purchase many books, but rely on the library for my reading material.  That saves on cost and shelf-space, and it just feels right given my profession.  But a free ebook?  Or one that costs $0.99?  Sure, why not?  I’ll just quickly download it for later. 

Low cost ebooks tend to be self-published.  Many self-published books are only available in ebook format.  Books by traditional publishers and well-known authors may be available in ebook, but the cost is almost as much as a paper copy.  What this means is that I have started reading many an ebook, only to give up because the quality is not worth it.

Does that mean all self-published books are not worth reading?  No.  There are some good ones.  Anna Castle’s Francis Bacon mysteries are quite enjoyable (disclaimer:  I read them in their paper versions).  My main concern is that anyone can publish an ebook.  There is no quality control and discernment is required to make good use of your valuable reading time.

The flip side of this is that I have started reading many ebooks and have come away with the thought that “I can do better than this!”  If this can be published, then certainly my work can.  Speaking of which, I should get back to it.  You can’t publish what you haven’t written.  Well, you probably can, but you shouldn’t.

Posted in Book Review, Libraries, Reading, Writing | 1 Comment

Stately house, part III: Hardwick

Inspired by a recent article about how to fund a British stately home or manor house in modern times, I thought I would write about how my three favorite houses have handled this.  For Wollaton, see here for Longleat, see here.  Finally, I look at Hardwick Hall.

Hardwick Hall

Oh, Hardwick, how I love thee.  Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall, was built by one of the most fascinating and successful women of the Elizabethan period, Bess of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury.  Bess famously married and was widowed four times, each time becoming richer than the last.  She, along with her last husband George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, played jailor/host to Mary Queen of Scots from February 1569 until Mary’s death in 1587.


Hardwick Hall represents the pinnacle of a building career that lasted decades and included Old Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth, along with buildings at Bolsover, Sheffield, Tutbury and Worksop.  My friend Robert Smythson provided the plans for the building, but the idea of Hardwick was probably swirling in Bess’s active mind for years, waiting for the right moment when she finally had freedom and control over her fortune.

Bess, Builder of Hardwick

Bess rose from relative obscurity to become one of the best known and richest women in England.  Her six children were the beginning of her legacy, which continues today through the lined of the Dukes of Devonshire, Somerset, and Norfolk, as well as the Earl of Pembroke.  Her granddaughter Arbella, the daughter of Bess’s daughter Elizabeth and Charles Stuart, had a significant claim to the throne following Queen Elizabeth I, but was ultimately pushed aside in favor of King James I.

Upon Bess’s death, Hardwick was left to her second and favorite son William, while her eldest son Henry inherited Chatsworth.  Several generations later, Chatsworth became the principal residence for the Cavendish family.  This meant that Hardwick Hall remained largely unoccupied since the 17th century and remains mostly unaltered or updated.  The interior of Hardwick Hall remains one of the best examples of Elizabethan architecture and style.

Care of Hardwick Hall was taken over by the National Trust in 1959, and since then the Trust has worked to maintain and conserve the treasures both within and without this beautiful house, while keeping it open for visitors.  The National Trust is a non-profit, charity organization tasked with the job of “keeping places special for ever, for everyone.”  The National Trust manages and maintains over 500 houses, buildings, gardens, and areas of interest and natural beauty across Great Britain.

Old Hardwick Hall


Interestingly, Hardwick Hall was built just steps from Bess’s childhood home of Old Hardwick Hall.  Over the years, Bess  added on and modified this building until she abandoned it in favor of starting afresh with the new Hall.  Old Hardwick Hall is owned and managed by English Heritage, another charity which oversees many historical sites in Britain.  Chatsworth, the current residence of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, is still privately owned by Bess’s descendants and is also open for public viewing.



One of my favorite views


This series has looked at three different houses, all with different solutions to the same problem: that of affording the upkeep of a great estate in today’s economy.  In two cases, Wollaton and Hardwick, the families chose a different house for their primary residence and gave others to charities or local government to rid themselves of the burden.  Only Longleat remains in private family ownership.  But all three are open to visitors who want to explore the past and share their history.  If you get the chance to visit any of these, or any one of the many historical homes open in Great Britain, I urge you to take it.   Whether you, like me, go to see the houses themselves, or the art and tapestries they contain, or the formal gardens surrounding them, I think you will agree that they are a beautiful piece of history.

Posted in England, Hardwick Hall, Robert Smythson, Travel | Leave a comment

Stately house, part II: Longleat

Inspired by a recent article about how to fund a British stately home or manor house in modern times, I thought I would write about how my three favorite houses have handled this.  For Wollaton, see here.  Next up: Longleat

Longleat was built by the ambitious Sir John Thynne.  He began converting an existing priory in 1540 and did not stop tinkering with the building until his death in 1580.  The building that stands today is actually considered the fourth Longleat, replacing an earlier building that caught fire in April of 1567.  In 1568, a stonemason named Robert Smythson joined the workforce at Longleat and, although probably not responsible for the final design of the building, he learned all the skills and vision he would need to continue his career at Wollaton, Hardwick, and other locations.

The story of Sir John Thynne and the building of Longleat is a story in itself, and one that I am hoping to tell in fictional form.  For now, let’s concern ourselves with the current state of Longleat and how it affords to maintain itself.  Longleat has been continuously owned by the Thynne family since its construction and almost continuously occupied by the family.

The Thynne family has been successful; the original Sir John rising from a steward of Lord Protector Edward Seymour, 1st Duke Somerset, and surviving Somerset’s disgrace and eventual execution for treason.  Throughout the following generations, the family has risen with a succession of titles, first the 1st Baronet of Kempsford, quickly followed by 1st Viscount Weymouth, to Marquess of Bath.

Currently, Longleat is home to Alexander, 7th Marquess of Bath, his son Ceawlin, current Viscount Weymouth, and grandson John.  In the last few generations, the family has taken steps to ensure there will be Thynne’s at Longleat for years to come.

In 1946, Henry Thynne became the 6th Marquess of Bath, inheriting the Longleat estate along with £700,000 death duties or inheritance taxes.  Over the next few years he struggled to maintain the house and estate which cost more to run than it earned.  He decided to fix up the house and then open it to the public.  In April 1949, Longleat became the first privately-owned stately home to admit the public on a regular basis.  Rooms were converted to a gift shop and café, and members of the family acted as tour guides and parking attendants.  By the end of the first year, over 135,000 people had paid to visit the house.

Later, the animals were added.  In the mid 1960s, the 6th Marquess of Bath began conversations with an animal trainer named Jimmy Chipperfield.  In 1966, the Safari Park at Longleat opened, which has grown and increased over the past fifty years.  Longleat is now a popular tourist destination complete with train and boat rides, multiple animal exhibits, one of the largest hedge mazes in the world, and many other attractions.

The Lions of Longleat

Interestingly, Sir John’s family crest includes a red lion with a knot in his tail.  Sir John was knighted on September 10, 1547, following the Battle of Pinkie, by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset.  The lion is the symbol of Scotland, whom the English defeated in the Battle of Pinkie, and Sir John adopted the symbol of a defeated lion for his crest.  So, lions have long been associated with the Thynnes of Longleat.



I think the original Sir John Thynne would have approved of these changes.  Surprised certainly, but I think he would have approved.  Above all else, Sir John was a survivor and a man who would do what was required to keep his house.  That his descendants have found a way for Longleat to not only survive, but thrive, I think would have pleased him.

Longleat's hedge maze

If you find yourself in Wiltshire, take some time to visit Longleat.  Whether you lose yourself in the maze, watching the lemurs, or touring the house itself, you will enjoy yourself.   I know I did.

         Some of Longleat's current residents   


Thynne family tree

Longleat: The Story of an English Country House, by David Burnett, 2009 The Dovecote Press



Posted in England, Longleat, Robert Smythson, Travel | Leave a comment