The pool at the Matilda Hotel in San Miguel de Allende
By John Simonds
It has been a classic fight for love and glory, this coronavirus pandemic. I had my Mexican wedding shirt packed besides my secret recipe for Margaritas when Doctor Preeti Kansal, my cardiologist, slammed the door on my dreams.
“I want you to stay home,” she said emphatically. This was on March 17th, a week before we were expected at the Matilda Hotel in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and four days before my 84th birthday. “I worry about you” she said sympathetically—a history of heart disease, COPD and old age is a cocktail for disaster, she intoned from her swivel chair in the exam room on the 18th floor at Northwestern Hospital.
By the way, “you look great” she said as I slipped out into the corridor that leads to the elevators. I made a surreptitious stop at Whole Foods to stock up on grapefruit, eggs and bone-in chicken breasts. I knew that my partner Mary Jo would be sure we had a supply of Chardonnay to enhance our lonely meals.
Before this inconvenience, I had an inspiration that I would like to organize a memoire writing group from among the congregation at Saint Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church where I pray to the Almighty. “Brilliant” exclaimed my pastor, the Reverend Wes Smedley, “I wish I had thought of that idea” he confessed from his pastoral chair.
The memoire group was to gather at our place starting on April 14 and run once a week for six weeks, and my partner in crime Mary Jo was to be my assistant-in- residence. (She is a master Scrabble player and a literary maven.)
With the blessing of Wes, I began some serious preparation when the coronavirus disaster slammed the door on my noble plan to help my fellow parishioners avoid loneliness and find some joy in writing, as I had.
I had planned to encourage the group to find the right word, le mot juste, as they say in French, when my eye caught an ad from The Great Courses called Building a Vocabulary…36 lectures of 30 minute duration.
I really groove on words, so it was easy for me to make the necessary commitment—it’s the first thing I do each morning with a yellow pad and a cup of black coffee. I am twelve lectures into the program and still on a high.
I wanted to teach my memoir supplicants about the art of writing a great scene, as I had been taught at a writer’s workshop in San Miguel a few years ago, so I turned to the master and sent for my copy of John Updike’s In The Beauty of the Lillies.
At 84 my eyes get weary from reading so I established a routine that has me reading just 20 pages at a time, but with nothing demanding on my time, it is just amazing how much you can get read at that pace. I am on page 286 and turning the corner toward home.
Then I remembered the wisdom of Joseph Campbell who taught me to always have something to look forward to so I chose taking a trip with Mary Jo down the Mississippi on a classic paddle boat in October. This in turn led me to begin a study of the history of the region by reading Jon Meacham’s biography of Andrew Jackson…now there is someone to admire.
And I slip into my apron and oversee the preparation of the evening meal, always trying to add fresh mint to the carrots, and a raison sauce to the ham.
A couple of days after I returned from getting the fatal news from my cardiologist, they closed the gym in our building so we “brought the Mountain to Mohamed” by acquiring a Schwinn Exercise Bike and some free weights, with resistance bands—our guest room is my fantasy studio: it’s my gym, my writing cave and my music chamber. (Listening to Chopin Nocturnes on You Tube is the perfect accompaniment to my exercise routine.)
I must have had a premonition that I would be confined to this space someday when I started collecting framed photographs of my all-time favorite authors: there they are staring down on me—Leo Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabokov and, for my birthday, Mary Jo gave me a framed photo of my real hero, John McPhee. And so it goes in this time of the coronavirus pandemic.