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An Autumn Birthday

 Fall has officially come to South Texas. I know that not because any leaves are changing color, but because we’re having those 30 degree daily temperature swings that are so typical of this time of year.  Mornings are quite seasonable in the 50s or 60s, and if you’re out and about early, the piles of pumpkins and gourds that have suddenly appeared in the supermarkets and garden centers will cause you to forget the recent months of unrelenting drought and string of 100+ degree days. But then, by late afternoon with the thermometer edging up toward 90, you recall them all too vividly and hasten to go out and water those potted mums you just purchased. They are already drooping and you haven’t even gotten them into the ground yet!  

     But we try. My husband, bless him, really tries, because he knows this is my favorite season and he knows how much I miss New England in the fall. Usually, we would have made a trip up East to New York and Connecticut around this time to see friends and enjoy the foliage, but not this year. So he has gone out and bought pumpkins and mums and created planters (see above). A few years back, he even planted two beautiful red oak trees, which have now grown very large and do, indeed, turn color even here, albeit late in the season  — very late, like in January. I have been threatening for years to spray paint all the trees in our yard orange and yellow, but have so far settled for bringing fall indoors with artificial swags of leaves from Michael’s and arrangements of faux fall baskets. This week I even started to introduce some Halloween decorations inside, because it is my favorite holiday and the ravens and witches make me happy.

     I also know it’s fall because Columbus Day is on Monday and my birthday always comes around Columbus Day. For many years, at least in the Northeast, Columbus Day marked a big holiday weekend, a chance for dedicated “leaf peepers” like us to get away. We often traveled to upstate New York or out to eastern Connecticut to enjoy shopping in quaint little towns, staying in a quiet country inn, and photographing those spectacular landscapes. At this time of year, local newspapers and weather forecasters keep area residents updated with color-coded maps and fall foliage advisories for the best scenic driving routes. Even just a day trip was an invigorating autumn experience, especially if it fell on my birthday.

     So, today is my birthday, but I obviously don’t have plans for a fall trip up East this year, or anywhere else anytime soon for that matter.  2020 has been a difficult year, memorable for lots of awful reasons, and hardly a year for celebrations of any kind, even birthdays. Yet, I decided to make this birthday memorable in a different way: first thing this morning, we drove up to New Braunfels to the county elections office to hand deliver our “mail-in” ballots. I figured that this is probably the most important election in my entire lifetime, so I could drive a bit to ensure that my vote counted. What better day to do that than on my birthday.

     Even before all the news broke about post-office shenanigans, we were already experiencing  repeated instances of lost/non-delivered/mis-delivered mail over the last few weeks, so the seeds of distrust in the reliability of the US Mail to properly deliver the ballots this year were already sprouting. (It so pains me to say that because I have always been such an avid user and advocate of the US Mail and always proclaimed ours the best mail delivery system in the world, at least until now.)  Originally we intended to show up in person for early voting early next week, but we then discovered that Texas does not require masks of either voters or poll workers. (A  subtle voter suppression tactic for those at risk during a pandemic.) So then we decided to use the mail-in ballots that had already come to us, to fill them out and personally drop them off.  And then, after mail-in ballots had already been sent out, Gov. Abbott suddenly decreed there be only ONE mail-in drop-off location in every county, regardless of size or distance ( a not so subtle voter suppression tactic, pandemic or not). So, we drove up to the county seat this morning before early in-person voting begins;  at least our location wasn’t a couple hundred miles away as it is in some places. 

     The effort today was my gift to myself, my satisfaction in exercising my responsibility and in being done with this election. And I am so done!! So tired of it!! So through with all the old incumbents on both sides of the aisle and the old ways of doing things: the gerrymandering, the lobbying, the big donors, the bullying and the good ole’ boys network. I noted, as I filled out my ballot at home, that out of the 21 races listed from president all the way down to county courts, women were contenders in 16 of those contests.  The times they are a changin’ — and it’s high time! I hope, in some small ways over these last few months, I have contributed to some of those changes.

     At the end of the day, my birthday did, in fact, end up to be a celebration, even if a somewhat restrained one. I had lots of cards and phone calls, a nice long Zoom visit with close friends far away, some extra special gifts, and a pizza party tonight with my “social triangle,” my husband, my son and my dog. It’s good; it’s all good, and I’m good to go, I think,  for a few months more of all the craziness, the Covid, the restrictions, the isolation, the political fracas.

     An autumn birthday in the autumn of my life reminds me of the strengths I have with which to persevere. 

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Forty Days and Forty Nights

The US Presidential election is forty days from today. In spite of Covid and the economy and the civil unrest and the death of RBG and all the talk of potential voter fraud, it will take place. However contested the results may become, the election will be a pivotal event for this country — dare I say even one of  “biblical proportions.” 

     Forty days and forty nights. That phrase, in itself, is weighty with significance. Forty years are mentioned 146 times in the Bible. The great flood lasted 40 days. Moses spent 40 years in Egypt and 40 years in the desert while the Israelites wandered and manna rained down. Mohammed was 40 when he received his revelation, and Jesus was tempted for 40 days and nights before his public life.  Christians observe 40 days of Lent; even human gestation is about 40 weeks. Ultimately, the meaning of 40 indicates a very long time. Need I say more about the importance of these 40 days?

     Yet, in the case of this election, forty days of preparation and penance may be both too long and not enough. Can we as a people endure 40 more days in what already seems like a very long time of continuing rancor and vitriol, protests and violence, threats and recriminations? Haven’t we had more than enough of political posturing, personal insults, conspiracy theories, robo calls and campaign ads?  Trump filed his reelection paperwork for 2020 with the FEC just five hours after his inauguration on January 20, 2017, and has since held over 325 campaign rallies during his time in office. Haven’t we had enough already!

     But time is also running out. In some states, voting  has already begun, even though there has been no funding to ensure election security and no resolution of the post office mess. Prompted in large part by health and safety concerns due to the coronavirus, the Trump-Biden election of 2020 is reaching new heights (or perhaps we should say new lows) in terms of voting rights litigation: some 190 lawsuits in 43 states and DC have been filed to challenge state election laws regarding mail-in ballots, registration deadlines, polling sites and voter eligibility. Most of these cases are still working their way through the courts.  

     Meanwhile, voter interest has soared, particularly among young people, and registrations have doubled or even tripled in lots of states: for instance, a record number of 1.5 million new voters have registered here in Texas and we have only two weeks to go before early voting begins on October 13. (Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order adding a one-week extension to the usual 17 day early-voting period to reduce crowding and increase safety, but this extension is now being challenged in the Texas Supreme Court.)

     And now, with only 40 days left, we have the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a new urgency, at least among conservatives, for confirmation of a replacement on the Court by Election Day. Democrats, still smarting from the Merrick Garland travesty and Republicans,  fearing another Bush vs. Gore election dispute with a 4-4 Court have turned what should have been a time of respectful mourning and thoughtful consideration for the legacy of a great woman in American history into yet another “political bonfire,” as columnist Maureen Dowd puts it. (“Will the Election Turn on RBG?” The New York Times, Sept. 18, 2020) Too little, too late.

     Bible stories and the signs and symbols in them retain their relevance not simply as matters of faith for those who believe, but also because they offer timeless lessons about human behavior and ways to express the meaning of our own experience. We return time and again to the stories of the Old Testament and the parables of the New Testament for the same reasons that we revisit Shakespearean plays or reread classic works of  literature. Human nature never changes and the good, the bad, and the ugly remain ever with us — and within us.

     I have been alternatively amused and appalled by the conjuring of all the biblical references  during the Trump administration, culminating on June 1 when he, himself, stood outside St. John’s Episcopal Church brandishing the Bible as both a material symbol of divine authority and  a convenient prop for another show of political theatre.  Talk of the apocalypse and the anti-Christ notwithstanding, along with the eagerness of the “rapture” believers for it all to come to pass, I do have to admit that I have actually become unnerved of late by the fires and the floods and the plague that America is battling. The long-suffering Job might have asked, “Why us?”

     And now the locusts are swarming in East Africa in the biggest infestation in a century.  I hope they don’t make it over here.  As Job might say, “We really have had enough already.”

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The Incredible Shrinking Woman

A couple years ago, as I watched my Mother’s world grow smaller and her ability to navigate even the simplest tasks diminish, I mourned the fact that she was shrinking. As she moved into her 90s, the woman who was once my idol and my strength became less and less able  — unable at first to see, to drive, to read, to write, to speak, then to walk, to compute, to communicate, and then ultimately to live on her own. Toward the end, once she was in assisted living  but while she was still alert and attentive, she was not even able to control her own basic bodily functions. Multiple strokes had robbed her of herself. Being a witness to that slow but steady loss is an unspeakable sorrow and sadness that I may never get over. 

     I have days now during the Coronavirus epidemic and my almost total shut-in that I feel my own self shrinking. No, thank God I haven’t had a stroke, but my world is growing smaller and my vision is becoming impaired by the cloudiness of the future. This is not a happy state of mind.  While I have been very creative during these last eight months, and actually quite content at home to read and write and sew and cook, I am also increasingly aware of how very isolated I have become, and how even the smallest details in my limited environment have taken on outsized importance. 

     Nothing escapes my notice these days. Whether it’s a minor toe ache in the middle of the night or a dust bunny in the corner of a room on a sunny afternoon, I must move to immediately address it; a messy drawer or a misplaced piece of paper can derail my attention from other things for hours; a small spot on the carpet that I never saw before can propel me to eradicate stains that weren’t even visible before to shampooing every floor covering in the house for two solid days. This is likely the beginning of OCD.

     I know I am not alone. Everyone these days is hypersensitive to every little thing because we are all at home day after day and focused on our immediate surroundings. This is exactly what happens to people as they age: preoccupation with the minuscule increases as the fear of losing control over bigger issues takes hold. Every ache, every pain, every small inconvenience is a cause for concern and alarm, sometimes to the extreme. Every discussion with others becomes a test of wills between the elder who is afraid and the caretakers who always seem to know better.  For those of us who are not quite yet elderly, this is not a way to live; this is a recipe for hospice care.

     So, while I realize that my current situation due to the pandemic presents something of a “rehearsal” for old age, I also have to guard against letting my own fears push me into “getting old before my time.”  How can I continue to engage the larger world when I cannot travel, cannot see my friends who live all over, and cannot experience all the people and places and activities that have come to define both my lifestyle and my life? How can I, who escaped the provincial confines of small-town life early on in favor of a larger venue with a global world view, be content to sit in place while that world grows smaller and smaller before my eyes and I grow smaller within it? Six months into all this, the only thing that isn’t growing smaller is my search for answers to those questions.

     Yes, yes, I know — a lot of people these days have bigger, more immediate worries as a consequence of the pandemic (or natural disasters, or civil unrest, or economic uncertainties, or any one of a number of other serious concerns) than my existential angst over how to live my now-rather-limited life.  To be sure, I am grateful to be comfortably retired and to able to spend my days at home without the heavy responsibilities of work and school and family to worry about. Nevertheless, the “there but for the grace of god …” platitude can only be quoted so often without dissolving into cliché and losing real meaning. Six months is definitely pushing the use-by date. 

     So, my current response to impending shrinkage has been to immerse myself more and more into my art, specifically my art quilting and the goal to gain acceptance into a SAQA international competition. (See post “In Residence,” July 10, 2020.) I have now exhibited in three regional exhibitions (submissions limited to residents of certain states or regions in the US), but so far, acceptance into a global exhibition (open to world-wide submissions and exhibits touring countries around the world for a year or two) has eluded me. In the last few weeks, I have begun a project to submit by the end of November. The theme of the exhibit is “light,” and I have what I think is the perfect composition based on a photograph I took some years ago in Tokyo. It’s a complicated project and I am already experiencing some challenges to my skill set, but then I’m all about growth these days.And isn’t that what art is really all about? 

     I may feel small right now, but I am forcing myself not to think small, to act small; I am forcing myself to ignore the dust bunnies in the corner and the messy drawers in my library and to immerse myself in a creative flow. This is my attempt at a bigger life in a larger venue, a global venue, in restricted circumstances.  If I can’t physically travel around the world, then maybe I can reach out to the world through art. 

     And maybe I can keep Tiny Alice from slipping down the rabbit hole where she was always somehow missing the size she needed to be.

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A Tale of Two

     “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” it was the before times ….

     Our current national situation has generated a whole host of phrases and expressions attempting to express the inexpressible. One that has recently gained currency is “Before Times,” or BT (which carries something of an apocryphal or biblical connotation) to indicate the “normal” before the coronavirus pandemic set in.  For many of us, BT has also come to mean the “normal” before Trump set in. In any event, now that we haven’t been living in normalcy in many respects for quite a while, we are starting to question exactly what normal life is/was, and what a return to it might really look like. It may be that the return to the old normal, the BT, is simply not possible anymore, maybe not even not desirable. Maybe it will never be again. 

      Charles Dickens’ historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities  (1869), is set mostly in Paris during a time of pre-revolution from 1775 forward. Studied as a classic by students for generations, the novel dramatizes the horrors of The Reign of Terror and the impossible decisions faced by ordinary people caught up in forces greater than themselves. Yes, Dickens is part of the “Western Canon” of dead white men, but he was arguably the best-known novelist of his time, an unwavering champion of social justice, and a forewarning messenger about the perils of ignoring timeless lessons from the past. The moral of A Tale of Two Cities is that there is duality in the world; there is light and darkness and the truth is found in who you are and what you do. People are responsible for their own choices — as true in BC and AD, and in BT, as it is now. Amen.

     We are living our own “tale of two” in America these days and, I fear, in as much of a pre-revolutionary mood as were France and England in the 1770s.  Even in the BT, we were a tale of two already dividing against each other: rural and urban, white and minority, men and women, rich and poor, blue and red, educated and uneducated, native and immigrant.  We managed to subvert and suppress many of those differences often pretending that they didn’t exit, but this is how revolution begins. Ignore, dismiss, and deny. And then along comes a leader who not only sees those divisions, but knows how to manipulate them. So now we are more completely divided than ever,  resisting, protesting, even taking up arms because our leaders don’t understand, or don’t care. “Let them eat cake.”  Amen.

     Having watched the two political conventions in the last couple weeks, my own sense, along with that of many political commentators, is that we are collectively cultivating a civil war  between two Americas. Each side, blue and red, sees itself as the vanguard of truth and salvation; each views the other as an existential threat. Somewhere in the middle, where most reasonable Americans reside I think, are those of us who both fear for our future and the future of our country, but who also don’t believe that politics has to be a zero sum game. When Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian who is hardly prone to extreme statements, says that “we may be a year away from losing our democracy,” then it is time for all of us to get woke, as the current expression goes, to assume some citizen responsibility for our national situation, and to recognize whatever intransigence we might be holding in our own personal positions.  

     We need to remember that ours is a “representative democracy,” meaning that even though we have this one-person-one-vote ideal, we are really voting for those who will in turn vote for us, their constituents, as our representatives on matters both local and national.  Nowhere is this representative system more dramatically illustrated than in the Electoral College. When voters cast their presidential ballots, they are actually choosing how their state’s electors will vote, and in all but Maine and Nebraska, the votes of the electors is a “winner takes all” affair. It is interesting and important to note that the U.S. Constitution does not, in fact, require states to even have a popular vote. The legislature of a state could assign electors for the presidency even if no popular vote were conducted! (Now there’s a scary thought.)

     Consequently, one’s individual vote in a presidential election really doesn’t count if that voter is a member of the minority party in his/her state, which explains why there is such furious campaigning and fundraising in an effort to turn a red state blue or vice versa. Given all this  mishigas, it’s amazing that the discrepancy between the popular vote and the electoral college winner has ONLY been an issue in five presidential elections: 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.  But hey! Stay tuned. Nothing is normal anymore.

     Everything these days is “unprecedented.” Everything is “beyond the pale.” Everything upends convention and pushes the boundaries of law, behavior, and tradition. And the Covid pandemic only adds to the chaos and fear. The only thing that is normal post BT is not being normal at all. We are having a national anxiety crisis and feel as though we are losing our collective minds, if not literally our heads. As Michael Steele, the former chairman of the RNC responded recently to some outrageous event or another, “I simply have no head left to shake.” Amen.

     The guillotine was constructed in Paris in 1792 on what is today the Place de la Concorde (photo above). Interestingly, while people had been chopping off heads for centuries, the guillotine was intended to be a more humane form of execution, designed to make death instant and less painful, while still emphasizing the revolutionary point that equality in death is equality under the law. Yet, the guillotine persists as an image of horror and fear and mob violence. Recently, Amazon employees erected a makeshift guillotine in front of Jeff Bezos’ house to protest the obscene wealth he has now attained ($192.5 billion) while most ordinary employees earn only $15 an hour. Off with their heads. 

     “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” it was the before times …  Good or bad, it may never be again.

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Back to School

   Here we are in late August, in those dog days of summer when the start of school looms large or, in some areas, has already arrived. l have always loved the fall, always loved the anticipation of another school year (whether as a student, a teacher, or a parent), loved the advent of football season, and loved the excitement of new challenges and new beginnings. My life was defined by the school year for so long that late August has continued to be a bittersweet, nostalgiac time for me ever since I retired from teaching some 12 years ago. This year, however, it is especially poignant, and troublesome.

     There are some 56 million elementary, middle and high school students who attend school in America each year (latest data from 2019), 90 percent of them in public schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were also almost 20 million students enrolled in American colleges and universities in 2019. That’s a lot of students, and their friends, their families, their neighbors, their co-workers, not to mention their teachers/professors, their custodians, their administrators, their office workers, their cafeteria servers, their security personnel, even their landscape keepers — all of whom could potentially somehow be exponentially affected by asymptomatic young student carriers of the coronavirus. 

     As someone who taught every level from junior high through graduate school (training high-school English teachers), who is so proud of her years spent in the classroom and who often remarked that she would “teach even if no one paid me,” I am really, truly distraught at the either-or position politicians, state and local officials, and yes, even the teacher unions have put our children, our parents, and our communities into regarding returning to in-class learning during this pandemic. Of course, we all love football, but really …? Of course, we all agree that there is no substitute for the dynamic of classroom discussion and the social interaction of schools, and of course, we all know that not every home and family is equipped to facilitate virtual learning, but again, really …? Just as forcing openings of retail establishments and recreational facilities too soon won’t make those reopenings safe and force the virus into a submission of will, forcing schools to reopen in areas where there are still serious outbreaks won’t force it all to go away and return to normal either. This is lunacy, or magical thinking.

     Were I still teaching today, especially in a high school, I would be perfectly willing, at whatever inconvenience it might take, at however many e-mails and phone calls, however many IT help lines, however many late-nights at home, to do my best to deliver instruction virtually, but honestly, if push came to shove, if I lived in a high coronavirus area, I would quit before I would risk this in-person exposure. Granted, I am a baby boomer, but guess what? So many of our teachers, especially college professors, are baby boomers, themselves vulnerable to the virus, and also eligible for retirement. Yes, we would quit because we could afford to quit. Unfortunately, though, there are younger teachers/professors who don’t have the economic luxury of choice in this, and that is too bad. Certifying them as “essential workers,” (which they have ALWAYS been, but not acknowledged as such by the public in the conventional meaning of the term) is only a way around forcing compliance and limiting liability for their safety. This is shameful.

     For so long, teachers and schools have been pushed to the forefront of every social upheaval and movement,  and have had to shoulder the burden of society’s expectations to “normalize.” From bussing for racial integration to redistricting for economic parity, schools have had to take on healthcare, with clinics in schools; we have taken on social welfare with counselors and psychologists; we have assumed nutrition with free lunch programs; and we tackled child care with before-school drop off and after-school programs. We used to joke in the high school where I taught that we might as well “adopt” our students — except it wasn’t entirely a joke. 

     Every social problem and solution is always tested out in the schools, and the covid virus is proving to be no exception. Except this time, the problem is almost entirely overshadowed with political “optics” of normalcy, of forced will, not of real concerns about health and safety and reason for students and communities. I am just appalled at all this. 

     Here’s what’s going to happen post-Covid: there will will be a tremendous shortage of teachers, at all levels, because so many of them are members of the baby-boom generation and, therefore, in a vulnerable group and on the brink of retirement. But also, even in this day and age, many teachers are women who are part of a two-income household, and so they don’t HAVE to do this, however much they love teaching. They love their students, but they love their families more. When districts start having sick-outs, strike-outs, and sudden resignations, then let’s see how many local politicians are willing to substitute in the classroom. 

     The upside of this pending disaster is that perhaps the nation will realize the importance of schools and teachers and decide to support our schools more strongly when all this is over, but who knows? It’s just like the post office: everyone takes it for granted until it is threatened. 

     

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Clearing Clutter

     The cleaning frenzy continues: room by room, drawer by drawer, closet by closet. Even the pantry got a big make-over last week, which took both of us working for two solid days.  The longer we shelter at home, the cleaner the whole house gets, which is not altogether bad since we may be old enough to sell the house and move into assisted living by the time this pandemic is over! 

     Part of this frenzy, of course, is generated by the Covid captivation that everyone is experiencing: you’re at home all day, so you notice all these chores and projects that you have been meaning to do, but never had the time to tackle.  Now there is time and therefore no excuse. But honestly, I was dubbed “Miss Pick Up and Put Away” long before Covid came to pass; just ask anyone who’s known me forever, like my college roommate, or my husband, or my son. The fact is that I just can’t stand clutter. I can’t work, I can’t think, and I certainly can’t create in a disorganized mess.

     All this is not to say that I don’t generate a fair amount of clutter myself when involved in a project.  I read, so there are always books; I write, so there are always papers; I sew, so there are always fabrics; and I cook — boy, do I cook!— so there are always pots and pans. But at least I “pick up and put away” when I’m done. My mother-in-law used to say, “Show me a clutter-free house and I’ll show you people with no interests.” Well maybe, but what about the old adage that “a messy room equals a messy mind.” Can anyone get a positive impression about people whose clutter drapes from counter to floor over chairs and tables like so much household kudzu? Please! This is every listing real estate agent’s nightmare.

     I’m not talking so much about that kind of massive clutter, though, as I am about the kind that falls out of hiding from behind cabinet doors when you open them or spills onto the floor when you remove something from a shelf.  These are the “secret clutters,” the stashes of stuff even we neat freaks create in order to temporarily (always “temporarily”) tidy up visible spaces. Out of sight, out of mind, but not really. I reach for a fabric in my sewing room, and have fat quarters fall out of their stacks from the shelf; I pull out a box of stationery from the library cabinet and have notecards flutter to the floor. These insidious clutter clusters are the ones I have been tackling lately, or rather, that have been tackling me. 

     In housekeeping, as in life, one thing inevitably leads to another, so that a search for stationery leads to the stash of postcards leads to the collection of photographs and so on and so on.  You end up not only reorganizing a particular project, but getting drawn into going through ancillary collections and adjacent drawers and cabinets. Pretty soon, you’re rearranging and cleaning out an entire room; next stop, the garage! Just call me Marie Kondo. (author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up )

     There is no question that the urge to clean and simplify is directly related to the stress of daily life. In times of crisis, reasonable people generally undertake a reassessment, of their lifestyle, of their values and goals, of their popssessions, and of what really matters and what is superfluous. Ms. Kondo likens de-cluttering to psychotherapy for the home, as well as for the people in it. It can be refreshing, liberating, even somewhat pacifying to think that at least we have some choices and some “locus of control” over our own immediate environment, especially during a world-wide pandemic.

     I recently read an article about nostalgia during periods of trauma and the comfort people find in revisiting childhood memories, watching old movies, listening to old songs, reconnecting with old friends, etc. (“Why We Reach for Nostalgia in Times of Crisis” by Danielle Campoamor, The New York Times, July 28, 2020). The basic premise of the piece is that life was simpler, better, easier in the “Before Times” (meaning before the current corona crisis), and so recapturing elements of that past offers a kind of emotional pacifier in the present, much like a child’s security blanket. 

     Interesting idea, except that it doesn’t necessarily work that way for everybody. Now I’ll admit that am not a terribly nostalgic, sentimental person, and I don’t save absolutely everything I’ve ever owned, written, made, worn, or read. But as I go through drawers and closets, I realize that things have a way of saving themselves, and so nostalgia inevitably finds me. Bins of fabric have me recalling the draperies I made and the upholstery I used in my last house; boxes of sequins and holiday embellishments bring to mind the huge Christmas dinners that I will never host again and the elaborate decorations that I will never make; a lustrous, long silk-taffeta skirt in the back of my closet reminds me that my days of elegant black-tie events are likely gone forever; a Playbill from “Hamilton” on Broadway suggests that this could turn out to be the very last show I ever attend in New York. Somehow, this strain of nostalgia is not comforting.

     I love my life. I am proud of the work I’ve done, the people I’ve known, and the experiences I’ve had with those I love. But I live in the present, and I don’t agree that everything was necessarily better “back in the day.”  Everyone talks about a return to normal and the post-Covid “new normal,” but what they really long for is a return to the past. That is just not going to happen. Many things will change, perhaps permanently, and maybe not altogether for the worse. 

So for now, I have no urge to fly, even on domestic flights, no desire go out to fine restaurants (at 25-50 % of capacity), no need to shop and no yearning to go to bars or gyms or meetings or other gathering places. I don’t even want to honor routine hair and nail appointments, because all I can see in any of this is the risk vs. necessity equation. Moreover, all I can really see is the way things aren’t, and  I don’t need to be reminded of that. 

     Clearing out my clutter is doing a good enough job.

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Say Yes …

     The other night I watched a new episode of “Say Yes to the Dress,”  The Learning Channel’s long-running reality hit (since 2006) following brides-to-be shopping for a wedding gown in the famous Kleinfeld’s wedding store in New York. It was a little odd, being the first show filmed under COVID conditions. There was host Randy Fenoli on video guiding brides throughout the country on selections that had been sent to their homes from Kleinfeld’s (to be tried on and then the rejections to be sent back). Ostensibly, this is a virus adaptation of both the show and of  Klienfeld’s services, but I’m thinking that it could become more than a temporary solution for all those nation-wide and international shoppers who have flocked to Kleinfeld’s for more than 80 years. Why not? At the price point of most of the gowns at Kleinnfeld’s, what’s a little shipping charge?

     Okay, full disclosure: I love Kleinfeld’s because I have a long-standing relationship with them. As a wedding and marriage writer and a contributing editor to Modern Bride Magazine for many years, I knew Kleinfeld’s well and relied on them for facts, statistics, and trends about the bridal industry.  Originally founded in a storefront in Brooklyn by Hedda Kleinfeld and Jack Schacter (her husband) in 1941, Kleinfeld’s started in a street-corner building with three dressing rooms. By 1979, the facility had expanded to 12 dressing rooms with over 400 styles in stock; it even added an annex just for  bridesmaids and mothers of the bride. In 2005 Kleinfeld’s relocated to Manhattan to 35,000 square feet of space with 28 dressing rooms, 17 fitting rooms, and over 1500 designer samples in house. Kleinfeld’s is the largest bridal retailer in the world with a staff of 250 people serving some 17,000 bridal customers a year.

     By the time I was embedded there in the early ’80s for research on my first book on weddings and marriage (Modern Bride Guide To Your Wedding and Marriage, Ballentine, 1984), Kleinfeld’s was at its heyday in Brooklyn. I reported early in the morning in my little black dress to spend the day as a bridal consultant “under cover” and Miss Hedda assigned me to an experienced consultant who would shepherd me through the day. As far as the brides knew, I was a regular consultant. I had several appointments that day, but the one that I remember most was a young woman from South America to whom I had been assigned because I spoke (minimal) Spanish. She came with her mother and her sister and she was a delight. She was also a big spender armed with photos of European designer gowns that she was anxious to see. And so she did. And so she bought one and left happy. 

     What I learned  most from this very long day at Kleinfeld’s was how incredibly much work the day was. First of all, the discussions with the brides and the attempts at transferring their dreams to the realities of the marketplace was a psychological challenge. Then, once the parameters of design and cost were determined, the search for appropriate selections to try on began. The gowns are extremely heavy — you cannot imagine —  and moving them from place to place to dressing room and back is exhausting. And then there is the tedious, often emotional, calculation of whether or not this might be a “say yes to the dress” in front of her accompanying shopping party. You become the mediator of the emotional distance between the bride’s vision of her perfect wedding day presentation and the expectations of her most immediate friends and family. For the consultant, it is a walk on a tightrope; every appointment makes for a very long day, and an important one. After all, for most women, a bridal gown is the only custom-made garment they will ever own and it will live in memory, and in photographs, forever.

     Back in 1969 when I was a bride-to-be choosing a wedding gown in Victoria, Texas, it was a simpler affair. There was only one bridal salon in town offering designer gowns and only a limited selection from which to choose. Even so, the consultant/owner, in her own little black dress with her glasses hanging on a spectacle cord and her graying hair up in a bun, truly had impeccable taste and was able to “order in” whatever she anticipated would be required for her client. Under her guidance, I chose a magnolia white sleeveless gown in peau de soie with re-embroidered Alencon lace, a matching silk wedding coat in full court train, topped by a full-length lace mantilla that I had previously gone to San Antonio to purchase. It was a beautiful ensemble overall,  for mid- July in Southwest Texas. The day we got married the temperature registered 104º,  but never mind…

     My husband and I celebrated our 51st wedding anniversary this weekend, quietly, of course, amid the coronavirus. It was about 101º here in San Antonio, but of course, I wasn’t wearing a wedding dress. (I wore a linen shirt and pearls.) We had a lovely, quiet dinner and revisited, via slide shows, some of our greatest travel hits including last year in Paris and a video of our 25th anniversary celebration in Connecticut. It was nice; calm, quiet, and memorable  mainly because we are both still here and still together in this most difficult time. We can be thankful for that;  the best, most lasting romance, is grounded in reality.

     During those years with Modern Bride, I went on to write two more books and hundreds of subsequent articles on marriage and family, and I loved doing it. Weddings are a happy topic and one that people are eager to talk about, even when describing their wedding mishaps.  Today, watching  “Say Yes to the Dress” brings all those memories back to me and makes me smile. 

     And these days, we all need to smile, particularly on our anniversary.     

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In Residence

     Writer in residence. Artist in residence. Indicating someone with a specific expertise confined, for at least a time, in a specific place, usually with a specific mission to create, to inspire, to share and to learn. It is essentially an academic concept, a sort of high-brow extension of the old 19th century workman’s apprenticeship, now not only common in medicine and the arts, but also in technology, science and teaching   In the past, I have been a “writer in residence,” and I have undertaken a “summer residency” for creative development.  And now, it seems that the COVID shelter-in-place recommendation has become an unintentional — and not entirely unwelcome — at-home art residency for a lot of people, including me.

     Oddly enough, I find that if I turn off my cell phone and don’t watch too much news, I am enjoying a sustained spate of creative energy, focused attention, and new ideas much like the experience of an arts residency with some of the same results.  First of all, I am delighted to report that my art quilt, “A Texas Oasis,” has been accepted into the juried exhibition called “Sense of Place: Texas Landscape Art Quilts,” sponsored by the Studio Art Quilt Associates. (see Journal post, May 20, 2020). It will tour all across the state for three years at venues including art museums and cultural centers, college libraries and even city airports. I am very pleased.

     Secondly, I finally finished that art quilt based on Christo’s Gates in Central Park which has been floating around in my studio for more than ten years now. (See Journal Post, June 12, 2020).  Suddenly, after writing about Christo’s death and digging out the quilt and studying it again, I was inspired to finish it and confident that at last I had the skills to do so. (See above called “Golden Gates.”)  I am especially proud of having figured out how to adapt one of Christo’s Park path plans as a side panel to this larger Central Park scene. I finished this piece  just for myself, since I have no exhibition “call for entry” into which it would fit, but that’s okay. Now it is hanging in my studio, and it makes me happy to recall that wonderful snowy day in February, 2005, when I walked that exhibit in Central Park.

     This week I participated in a fascinating webinar with a group of professional writers who are also quilters. The panelists were writers of fiction, non-fiction, journalism and poetry, as well as academics, historians, and working freelancers. Sponsored by Quilters’ S.O.S. (Save Our Stories), an oral history project created by the nonprofit Quilt Alliance, interviews and discussions such as these help to preserve and celebrate the lives of quilters and quilt making. Regardless of whether a fabric artist’s style is traditional, abstract, or representational, quilting is just another way to tell a story. Frances O’Roarke Dowell, a panelist and well-known novelist, offered a succinct summary:  “We walk into our sewing spaces dragging our lives behind us.”  

     While “in residence” at home, I have found some new connections on line and they have been exhilarating.  I’ve taken some classes, learned some new techniques, and started being a regular Zoom participant in my regional art quilting and writing associations. Ironically, I am actually becoming more connected to these communities than before when I needed to drive a long distance to attend the meetings. It’s exciting to see and hear what others are doing and to share my work and my ideas. One art informs another, always: small pieces of language build into a sentence and then into a larger whole; small pieces of fabric combine into a picture to create an overall image. Revision is common to both and texture (context) and composition are key. These corona days have given me the time and the freedom to examine these connections more closely and to explore new possibilities. And I have finally given myself permission to identify as a fabric “artist,” as well as a writer. 

     So, this week I have spent fashioning a box, making a muslin bag for “The Texas Oasis” and preparing to ship it out for the exhibition next week. (The shipping specifications are almost as demanding as the requirements for the quilt itself!) I am now cleaning up my sewing studio, reorganizing all my fabrics, and preparing to start another new project, a little piece for a SAQA convention in Florida next year (if it is held). I have learned about a new technique, fabric collage, that I am anxious to try, and I am writing a lot, not only for this blog and in my daily personal journal, but also keeping a notebook of sketches, ideas, and reflections for future projects. I may not have any big travel adventures or social events to look forward to right now, but I do have creative endeavors ahead, and that’s enough to sustain me for quite a while, if need be.

     And the need may very well be. Coronavirus conditions are serious here in Texas; our case numbers keep rising dramatically and our public health directions going forward are inconsistent and vague. Masks are, finally, mandated across the state, some reopening steps have been scaled back, and the big debate over school openings next month is only just beginning. While there has been no explicit renewal of stay-at-home orders,  there is no doubt that people, at least reasonable people, have once again begun to do so, certainly in the major cities where outbreaks are becoming critical.  

     For months now, my sign-off with friends and family has been, “Stay safe and stay sane.” I continue to be grateful that all I have to do is stay safe and healthy and that I don’t have to grapple with the tough day-to-day decisions facing so many others under these dire circumstances.  But I am also dismayed, and perhaps a little guilty, that not only am I managing to stay sane during this pandemic, but that I am actually experiencing creative rejuvenation in such a troubled climate. I suspect I am not alone.

     The luxury of time, the serenity of silence, the benefits of an artistic residency at home… how odd. 

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Covid Cuisine

Okay, “cuisine” might be a bit of a stretch, but the fact is that cooking at home while being at home during the coronavirus has flourished. People who always loved to cook but never had the time, have happily found the time, and people who loved to eat but never cooked have decided to give it a try once they tired of ramen noodles and peanut butter. Of course, experienced cook or not, planning, shopping and preparing three meals a day week after week is enough to wear anybody out. The good news though, as so many have discovered, is that families are actually sitting down to meals with each other, and even cooking together!

     According to a survey done by SSA & Company, a management consulting firm, 40 percent of consumers began eating at home regularly for the very first time during the COVID outbreak. While retail sales in general plummeted, figures show that sales of small kitchen appliances (bread makers, electric skillets, juicers, rice cookers, coffee makers and such) have risen significantly, as have sales of cookware and kitchen utensils.  Bloomberg rightfully reported that sales of those instant ramen noodles had jumped 578% between February and March, but by April, USA Today was reporting that bakeware and yeast were selling out on line! (I can personally attest to the yeast shortage.)

     I have been a big, and frankly rather accomplished cook, for most of my adult life, though when I first got married, I “couldn’t boil water,” as my Mother put it. After the honeymoon, however, it soon became clear that my love of good food beautifully presented was going to demand some studying up if I wasn’t going to eat out in restaurants every night. And so, lo and behold, there she was: Julia Child herself on PBS television with her cookbooks available at the nearest Waldenbooks! (Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. I, 1961; The French Chef Cookbook, 1968 (which was the accompaniment to her television show and which I still have and sill use); and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. II, 1970. 

     Now I don’t want to bore you with the litany of Julia Child’s cookbooks, but having just cleaned out my entire kitchen cabinet of books and recipe files, I still have, and still use regularly From Julia Child’s Kitchen (1971), Julia Child and Company (1978) [the ham pithiviers in this book has become a Christmas Eve tradition in our house], Julia Child and More Company (1979), and Julia’s Kitchen with the Master Chefs (1995), which I just referred to the other day. Hey, author Julie Powell has nothing on me! (Julie and Julia,  2009) 

     Over the years, I continued to learn from other television chefs, Jacques Pepín, Martha Stewart, Emerill Lagasse, and my beloved (to this day) Ina Garten, and to collect their cookbooks. I also took local courses, starting with the Wilton cake decorating classes (even though I have never been much of a baker, but it was great for decorating all my son’s birthday cakes), and then moving on to special courses in specialty markets covering such skills as risotto, pasta making, and bread baking. Here in San Antonio, I have attended the CIA (Culinary Institute of America)  for enthusiasts courses on French bistro cooking and soufflés. And last summer in Lyon, France, we were fortunate to take a class at the famous Institut Paul Bocuse and to have lunch there. Now that was culinary event that made the whole trip worthwhile!

     During the COVID quarantine, the CIA has graciously given those of us who have attended classes there a complimentary on-line connection to their instructional kitchen videos and their library of recipes, all of which have inspired me to expand my culinary repertoire while at home. I also recently finished reading the hefty, but wonderful, newly-released memoir by Bill Buford called Dirt, in which he recounts the five crazy years he spent with his family in Lyon immersing himself in French cooking. And yes, his big goal was to study at Institut Paul Bocuse. Our trip to the south of France last year was our last abroad before the coronavirus hit, so this book has been both informative and nostalgic for me. (I love France and wonder if I will ever get there again.)

     Anyway,  I have spent these COVID weeks devoted, in large part, to cooking, canning, preserving, baking, freezing, studying and reorganizing my cookbooks and recipes. My husband has been harvesting summer vegetables and now is preparing for the fall crop. Needless to say, we have had some fabulous meals during this time — and we haven’t gained any weight!! Lots of things are in season right now — peaches especially, but also jalapeños, tomatoes, string beans, onions, and squash all of which are in our garden along with fresh herbs and fresh flowers. 

    Call it what you will, cuisine or just plain cooking, is a creative act of  love and joy, particularly for others  — one of those perhaps unexpected, but comforting discoveries from the coronavirus. Hopefully,  there will be other happy discoveries and they will outlast these troublesome days.    

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Artistic Impressions

     The artist Christo died on May 31. He was 84. His artistic career was spent wrapping, draping, constructing and hanging materials over bridges, landmarks, building, and even on water. His wife, Jeanne-Claude, collaborated with him on his astonishing, monumental projects until she died in 2009. That fact that he is no longer here makes me sad. His latest project, a wrapped L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which has been in the planning since 1962, was due to be realized in 2021. I was hoping to be there to see it.

     As an artist, Christo defied classification, really. Some called his work “installations,” which they certainly were, but they were hardly permanently installed. They took months, even years of planning and negotiation, but their exhibition was short-lived, usually only on display for a couple weeks. Some called him a “conceptual artist,” because the initial concept along with all those years of planning and decision-making, shaped the very nature of the art itself, making the ultimate execution of it a somewhat perfunctory affair. Some considered him an “environmental artist,” because his installations not only involved painstaking study and research of the proposed location, but also fastidious attention to the integrity of the environment and the preplanned repurposing of all construction materials once the exhibit was dismantled.

     And some didn’t even really consider Christo an artist at all, but rather a showman, or at the very least, an eccentric visionary who descended upon a community with a childlike enthusiasm for his great idea and who thorough perseverance and charm, brought everyone around to sharing his fanciful dream. His projects, often decades in the making, required the cooperation of hundreds of people: landowners and residents, government officials and zoning boards, environmental and specie-interest groups, not to mention all the engineers and workers who were needed to produced his marvels. Art critics and fellow artists had mixed reactions, and most would never place him in the great pantheon of serious artists, but Christo didn’t care. The public loved him, and his work was a fight of experience that was always free to that public. Never relying on municipal funds or taxes, Christo and Jeanne-Claude funded all their projects through the sale of their own work: renderings, plans, lithographs, watercolors, photographs, books and prints. (Still available through sources found at christojeanneclaude.net)

     It is an unfortunate truth that people who live in the immediate environs of major cities, like New York, always bemoan the fact that they “don’t get into the City as much as we used to.” It’s as if the better you know a place, the more you love it, the more you take it all for granted and assume it will always be there. On a bright, snowy day in February, 2005, my husband and I drove into Manhattan to see “The Gates,” Christo’s much-publicized installation in Central Park. It had been open for almost two weeks by then and was scheduled to close the next day; we keep “meaning to get there earlier” when the weather might have been nicer, but … well, nothing waiting till the last minute. This exhibit would not go on forever.

     Not surprisingly, “The Gates” had been in the planning/discussion stages since 1979. This was New York City, after all, so you can imagine the layers and levels of  permissions and petitions and glad-handing and propositioning and patience and cooperation it took to finally reach agreement on an art installation constructed over 23 miles of walkways in Central Park, with 7,503 panels of saffron fabric, each 16 feet tall and of varying widths, hanging 7 feet  above the ground at 12 foot intervals. Negotiations started when Ed Koch was mayor, continued through David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani, and didn’t come to fruition until Michael Bloomberg was in office — over 25 years in the making!

     Certainly, New York has had more than its share of truly spectacular events and exhibitions, even in Central Park, but “The Gates” was truly an explosion of joy and wonder, a vision of a golden river running right through the trees of midtown Manhattan. Over 4 million visitors came to walk underneath those fluttering saffron “gates” in just two weeks’ time. I will be forever thankful that I picked myself up at the last minute and became one of them.

     I have been a devotee of the arts my whole life; as an academic, I have spent much time and energy studying the arts, not just literature, but also fine arts, applied arts, and theatre. I hardly claim to be an art critic, nor can I boast of more than just a generally well-educated person’s level of knowledge, but I have been fortunate enough to have visited most of the major museums and architectural sites in the world, and to have encountered, often unexpectedly, works that struck me profoundly, both intellectually and emotionally, as to make a deep and lasting impression on my very should. Art or not, “The Gates” in Central Park did that.

     In an interview included in a brochure accompanying “The Gates,” Christo was asked why his work was temporary. He answered: “Our works are temporary in order to endow the works of art with a feeling of urgency to be seen, and the love and tenderness brought by the fact that they will not last. Those feelings are usually reserved for other temporary things such as childhood and our own life. These are valued because we know that they will not last.” (website: chirstojeanneclaude.net Gates project brochure) That explanation speaks to me; it explains, I think, why “The Gates” was so pivotal and was so quintessentially a New York experience for so many.

     I started an art quilt based on one of my photographs of “The Gates” a couple years after that day in Central Park. Good design, good ideas, good intentions. But, I got to a place where I couldn’t go further — lacking the skills, the confidence, the direction, I don’t know … My “Gates” piece is the only quilt that has become a UFO (unfinished object) for me. It has floated around my studio for over 12 years. I have often looked at it longingly, and lovingly, remembering that day in Central Park and feeling a sadness that I couldn’t quite do it just in fabric. 

     Funny thing, though: the coronavirus has me at home in a sort of unintentional “art residency” wherein I have been devoting more and more of my time to my art quilts, to thinking, designing, and creating. On the news of Christo’s death, I resurrected my “Gates” piece and realized that I had improved skills and new ideas for finishing it. It is now coming along nicely, much in the way I had originally envisioned. It doesn’t meet any of the usual size specifications or particular requirements for entry into competitions, but that doesn’t matter. It is being completed from my heart, the way Christo ultimately completed his long-planned work. It is a tribute, and a thank you, to him.