On becoming the family sheepdog + “Circling the Sun” by Paula McLain

Last week we went on vacation, to our cabin in the Poconos. It was a wonderful trip to the mountains, reminding me of the mountains I love (the Rockies). It was slightly relaxing, but I didn’t get enough down time. Not enough at all.

The last few days were a whirlwind of going, going, going. And somewhere in there I realized, when we’re going, going, going I’m pretty much the family sheepdog.

I’ve seen it often, usually with families that have one or two younIMG_20150801_120329ger children and a couple that are a bit older. It’s usually mom, but sometimes it’s dad or an older child.

With our family, it’s me. And we don’t have younger children, but we do have Katy.

Katy’s our younger daughter with Down syndrome, but, even beyond that, she is a dawdler and a wanderer. She skips and smells flowers and sings made up songs. She stops to admire every baby, takes time to checkout signs and pictures and bright colors.

So I pretty much stay behind her, keeping her in line and telling her, every so often, to run and catch up with the group.

The other issue, beyond Katy being a dallier, is my husband. He’s a fast walker, and pretty much expects everyone to keep up. This is probably my fault, because I’ve never really told him to slow down. And I don’t want him to slow down, because then it would take HOURS to get to where we are going. And we would all be frustrated, except for Katy, who would happily sing her own song, unaware of our frustration until it bubbled over.

So I play family street sweeper, keeping her from getting too behind the others.

This past week, while we were on vacation, we seemed to spend our last three days in crowded places. We went to the New Jersey State Fair in Sussex County, New Jersey, which was pretty crowded, as state fairs seem to be. I worked hard to keep Katy in line.

And we went to an LARGE outlet mall, for a little back-to-school shopping. I made sure Katy didn’t wander too far.

Lastly, we met friends at Hershey Park. It was the most crowded place EVER. Filled with all the distractions that make Katy drift away from the fold. Candy and colors and babies! Toys and games! Rides that she was afraid we were going to force her to ride (which we would never do), rides that she wanted to ride RIGHT NOW.

I stayed a bit back, behind it all, sometimes holding Katy’s hand, sometimes telling her to stay with the group. Because otherwise we were going to lose her.

And I accept that this is my role in our family sometimes. I’m the sheepdog. the street sweeper. The ref that keeps the game on the field. I wander IMG_20150427_155707behind, keeping everyone in tow. And I take a lot of pictures of the backs of my family.

I see the world from a different vantage point. I watch my husband have deep discussions with our older daughter, pointing out ridiculousness and whimsy in the world. If we have others with us, like his brother or maybe a friend for our older daughter, I get to watch those interactions.

And because I’m the sheepdog, I get to watch it all from a secret vantage point. No one really notices that I’m watching. Mom’s don’t usually get to watch their preteen daughters so closely, so it’s kind of nice.

Although every once and awhile I would love to be up front.

But I’ll take the rear point, watching for wandering sheep (or really, just one sheep), keeping the group on track and headed in one direction. I’ll follow behind those I love most in the world, making sure nothing gets dropped and no one gets lost.

Because I’m a mom. And a sheepdog. And it’s what I do.

Okay, onto a new favorite book: Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun.

I know I watched Out of Africa years ago, but I remember very little of it other than that it was in Africa. And that it starred Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. And, looking at the cast, it seems that the star of this book, Beryl Clutterbuck Markam, doesn’t even make the movie.

But, in Circling the Sun, Beryl is the star.

I knew nothing about this amazing woman, probably because Isak Dinesen, the pen name of Karen Blixen (the character played by Meryl Streep) wrote the non-fiction book Out of Africa about the same years in Kenya, completely overshadowing the story of Beryl.

Beryl Clutterbuck was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic from East to West, and that is just one of her accomplishments. In a world filled with larger than life characters, she is still amazing.

The Premise

Beryl Clutterbuck was born in England, but transported to Kenya with her family at a young age in the early 20th century. When her mother abandons her and her father for the more familiar in England, Beryl and her father are left on their  horse ranch to fend for themselves.

Without a mother or a civilized presence, Beryl learns to all from those around her, mostly men. Her closest playmates are natives from a nearby tribe. She runs a little wild in the wilds of Kenya, learning all about horses and the land from those around her.

Throughout this fictional account of Beryl’s life, the reader learns of her marriage at a young age (16), her success as the first Kenyan female horse trainer, her passionate love affair with Denys Finch Hatton (the Robert Redford character from “Out of Africa”), and finally, her flight across the Atlantic. And so much more.

Beryl Clutterbuck Markham forged a life like no other, fitting in nowhere but finding her own place nonetheless. She is her own woman, something that every woman should aspire to become. She pushes back at those that try to put her in her ‘place’ not because she’s an early feminist and that’s what she’s supposed to  but because she doesn’t fit.

My Thoughts

When I saw a new book my McLain, I was extremely psyched. The Paris Wife was one of my favorite books, written about a famous man (Hemingway) from his wife’s point of view.

This book did not disappoint. The beauty and wonder of Kenya in the early 1900’s was its own character, beautiful and wild and wondrous, but unsure of its place in the modern, shrinking world. Paralleling Kenya is Beryl Clutterbuck.

Beryl’s memoir, West with the Night, never got the attention it deserved (not that I’ve read it). Hemingway wrote to his editor about the book, “Did you read Beryl Markham’s book . . . she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer . . . it really is a bloody wonderful book.” Later it did become a bestseller, partly due to Hemingway’s son, giving Beryl a little comfort in the later years of her life (she had been living in poverty in Africa prior to that). The book has been the subject of speculation, as Beryl had little formal education and her third husband was a writer, but there is evidence that she did write it. Either way, her life was extraordinary.

But, back to McLain. This lady can tell a story, breathing life into minor characters in an amazing way. I thank her for introducing me to Beryl and Kenya, and I will be doing a lot of side exploration (watching Out of Africa, reading West is the Night) because of her.

I give Circling the Sun five stars. I loved this book, and I want to be Beryl when I grow up.


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