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My New Year’s Resolution Is …

fullsizeoutput_1101              So here we are again at the start of another year and I, along with an estimated 40 percent of adult Americans, am making my New Year’s resolutions. I make them every year, only a few, and write them in my journal; then, at the end of the year, and just before finalizing my new list, I review the old one and see what I have accomplished. Interesting how some entries are repeated year after year; the resolve to develop more patience, for example, seems forever to elude me.

     We think of the practice of forming New Year’s resolutions as a particularly Western, even a particularly American tradition perhaps inherited from Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack (published yearly from 1732 -1758) with its witty proverbs and wise counsel for personal improvement. But in fact, the practice can be traced all the way back to the ancient Babylonians who resolved each year to settle their debts and return borrowed objects. 

     It wasn’t until Julius Caesar organized the Roman calendar into ten months (with intervening “adjustment periods”) that January became the first month of the year. Thus began the Roman custom of making promises to the god Janus, who represented gateways and beginnings.  The Julian calendar remained in place until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII instituted the 12 month Gregorian calendar we still use today. January 1 became the official beginning date of the New Year and, from then on, Christians typically prayed for blessings and resolved to do good works in the months ahead. During Medieval times, the knights even renewed their vows of chivalry. 

     Resolutions these days are rarely so lofty; rather, they usually focus on more mundane aims regarding diet, exercise and personal habits: to quit smoking, drink less, lose weight, save money. Then there are the broader self-improvement quests such as reducing stress, getting organized, cultivating gratitude, and yes, developing patience. While no doubt formed in good faith, the problem with all of these is that they beg the question of “How?”

     It has been my experience — and believe me, I have years of experience with resolutions — that the more specific an intention is, the more precisely it is stated, the more likely it is to be accomplished. Not “to lose weight” or “save money,” for example, but to lose a pound a month or save xx dollars per paycheck; not to “reduce stress” or “get organized,” but to take yoga classes or set up a filing system. In this way, resolutions become more like goals, with realistic steps toward achieving them, rather than simply pipe dreams that are soon forgotten or abandoned. (Notice, however, that I still have no successful steps to offer for becoming more patient.)   

     Sometimes, just writing a goal down is itself a significant step in moving toward it, in the same way that taking notes in class or writing a letter reinforces information and intentions. Words, especially written words, make an idea real. Once you’ve written it down, or even said it out loud, the thought has a physical presence. It now exists and demands to be dealt with; ignore it at your peril. If you’ve ever lived with the anger and anxiety due to “what has been left unsaid,” you know the truth of this. Sure you can always try to take the words back, or at least apologize for them, but once spoken or written, the reality of a situation is forever changed.

     Not surprisingly, this is why writing resolutions is both so effective and so difficult. You force yourself to deal with the reality of your intentions, as well as to own their/your potential for failure. Best to make that list of resolutions as brief, as simple and as direct as possible. With that in mind, I have revisited my own resolutions over the last few years and have concluded there is, in fact, one simple common denominator running through not only the lists, but also the failures: it’s time. 

     My whole life has been a race against time — hence, my total lack of patience with people and situations that waste it. A good friend sent me a birthday card last year that showed the grim reaper with a scythe in the rearview mirror of a car. Inside it read, “Caution: objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” Believe it or not, I laughed out loud; she knows me well.

     “If you want something done, ask a busy person,” the old saying goes. And I have almost always said yes, which has left me over-extended, stressed out, and then blaming everyone but myself. That pattern stops this year. I will consider my yesses carefully, lest I spend so much time doing what I don’t want to do, don’t have to do, and don’t need to do to fulfill other’s expectations. If that is selfish of me, then so be it, but at this age and stage in life, I think it’s about time.

     So, briefly and simply, my New Year’s Resolution this year is … No!

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Flowers of the Holy Night

      They are ubiquitous. They are everywhere. Some might even call them clichéd. Doesn’t matter. Nothing says Christmas like the poinsettia, especially here in San Antonio where the history and origins of the plant called Cuetlaxochitl is so deeply rooted in Mexico and in our shared cultures and traditions.

     First, the facts: poinsettias are native to Central America, particularly to the southern area of Mexico known as Taxco. They have a long history dating back to the 14th century, and were highly prized by the Aztecs for their healing powers and red and purple dyes. They were “discovered” and introduced to America in 1828 by a man named Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico under John Quincy Adams. A passionate botanist, Poinsett began shipping the plants back to his home in South Carolina where he studied and cultivated them and spread their popularity. From him the poinsettia got its name.

     The bright red “flower,” or what we think of as the flower, is actually not the flower at all. They are mutated leaves called “bracts.” The actual flower is those little yellow buds in the center. Poinsettias bloom in late fall and do so predominately in red, but also in pink and yellow (considered white). Hybrids of  Euphorbia pulcherrima ( Latin name) have been developed to create shaded, speckled and even compact curly varieties, some in unusual colors, but the traditional red is still the most common and the most popular. 

     Finally — and this may be the most important fact to remember at this time of year —the poinsettia is NOT poisonous. While no one suggests adding it as an edible flower to your holiday salad bowl, a tiny nibble by a pet or a quick taste attempt by a small child is not going to be fatal.  

     My house is full of  really, really red poinsettias this year. I think they are one of the newer commercial varieties called  “Beauty Red.” Their sturdy stems and shiny green leaves give them a stately, almost artificial look in their perfection, and they were only $5.99 at Lowe’s the week before Thanksgiving. I couldn’t help myself; I stocked up, intending to keep a couple for myself and to take the rest out to decorate for the holidays at my Mother’s and her assisted living residence.  

     The poinsettia’s identification with Christmas is founded both in Catholic tradition and Mexican folklore. Because the poinsettia is red, which is a color associated with religious rituals since ancient times, and because the plants bloom so vibrantly in December, Franciscan monks in Taxco started using them in their nativity processions in the 17th century. Even today, the poinsettia is sometimes referred to as the “Star of Bethlehem,” because the shape of its leaves symbolize the star that led the Wise Men. 

     From religious tradition emanated the legend of Pepita, a young girl who was traveling to a nativity scene at the church, but who did not have enough money to buy a fitting gift for the Baby Jesus. So she gathered a bunch of weeds along the way and fashioned a bouquet, encouraged by her cousin that even a modest offering would be welcomed. Upon presenting her gift to the Nativity, the bouquet turned into a beautiful cluster of red flowers. Because of this miracle, the poinsettia became known as “flowers of the holy night,” still today called Noche Buena colloquially in Spanish. 

     My Mother loved Christmas, above all other holidays and celebrations. Even when she worked in retail at J.C Penney’s during the holiday season, a most stressful time of year for employees, she loved Christmas and was thrilled by the excitement of the decorations and the good will. All those years when we lived up East and I would brave La Guardia Airport to pick her up in December weather, and during these last ten years when  I would drive down to Victoria to get her and bring her back to my house for the holidays, we would always say that Christmas could finally begin now that the “official elf’ had arrived. Even when our son was small, she was the big kid of Christmas.

       I wonder if Joel Poinsett realized back when he began sharing his red-flowered plants with friends and colleagues during the month of December that he was establishing an American holiday tradition? The plant’s reputation did, indeed, spread across the country. In the early 1900s, Paul Ecke developed the first poinsettias that could be grown indoors in pots and started selling them at roadside stands in Hollywood, CA. In 1923, he founded the Ecke Ranch in Encinitas which, while sold to a larger corporation in 2012 by his grandson, is still today responsible for roughly 75 percent of all the poinsettias sold in the US and 50 percent of the plants sold elsewhere through research and development and cuttings shipped to growers worldwide. (“Inside the Paul Ecke Poinsettia Ranch” by Lisa Hallett Taylor, www.thespruce.com 8/27/18) 

     My Mother died over Thanksgiving weekend, just in time to celebrate Christmas in heaven. We didn’t get to decorate for her this year, but we did end up having a Christmas funeral of sorts with poinsettias and with soft instrumental Christmas music playing in the background. Those who knew her appreciated the appropriateness. And my house, now decorated simply with all these poinsettias, is a study in “understated elegance,” given that I hadn’t the heart or the energy to go all out this year on holiday cheer.

The poinsettia is, by far, the best-selling potted plant in the Country; over 35 million of them are sold in the six weeks leading up to Christmas alone. Today’s heartier, stronger plants can continue to bloom from November to April if cared for and can even, with a little extra effort, be coaxed into blooming again. In July, 2002, Congress declared December 12th, the date of Joel Poinsett’s death in 1857, to be National Poinsettia Day. 

     Coincidentally, my Mother’s funeral was held on December 12th.  Or perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence at all; perhaps her service and my house full of poinsettias is her way of wishing us a blessed Christmas and assuring me that she, too, continues to bloom.

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Ordinary People

     

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      Here’s the truth about life: most people, regardless of how many selfies they take or how many facebook pages they have or how they try to “brand” themselves, are quite ordinary. Ordinary people don’t discover the cure for cancer or win the Nobel Prize or climb Mr. Everest— nor do they aspire  to. Ordinary people just go about their days putting one foot in front of the other, doing what has to be done, accepting whatever comes their way and trying to deal with it the best way they know how. They are not “go-getters.” Their motivation is simple: they just want a decent life for themselves and their families. Beyond that, ordinary people don’t see why they should be any different from anybody else.

     Does this characterization sound familiar to you? Do you recognize this description in people you know, among your friends and neighbors? Are they your parents or your grandparents, yourself? Are they Midwesterners or Southerners, blue collar workers or immigrants? Probably not “coastal elites,”right?

     Well, wrong. Ordinary people are everywhere, in all walks of life, in all economic strata, in every geographic region and in every demographic. Ordinary people are, well, ordinary. They have dreams, sure; they want good health and a good education, they want to better themselves from wherever they start, they want to contribute, and they want to feel valued and recognized, but they never presume to exceptionalism. Indeed, when and if an exceptional cosmic accident happens to them —an unexpected award or an act of heroism or  a Powerball win, for example — ordinary people are deferential, if not down right embarrassed by the sudden limelight and attention.They will always maintain that they were just “doing what they were supposed to do.” 

     In these days of self-promotion and facebook me-first, this depiction of the unsung ordinary is hardly descriptive of young millenials, or even of the aging baby-boomers at the other end of the generational spectrum who were, after all, the originators of the “here we are, look at us” attitude. They (we) were going to change the world and do great things, and indeed, they (we) did become the best-educated, most affluent, most catered-to, and, for better or worse, most influential generation in history. But make no mistake, most of us were also, in fact, “ordinary,” even though we didn’t act like it, didn’t think we were,  and didn’t want to be. Even now, in our aging sixth and seventh decades, humility is not a hallmark of this generation.

     Ironically though, we are the children of the quintessential “ordinary people.” Our parents, the World War II generation, were the ones who epitomized the values of hard work, determination, duty, gratitude. Ever modest about their own achievements, their dreams of more were never  for themselves, but for their children. For us. They were not presumptuous; they were perseverant. They did great things on a small scale. “Slow and steady wins the race.”

     My Mother died this week at the age of 95. In retrospect, she was what many might call a “trail blazer” for her era, though she would have said that she simply did what she had to do.  Widowed at a young age in the 1950s, she entered a management training program at the local J. C. Penney store and ultimately became a Personnel Manager, one of the first women in management for that company in the state and more or less the only professional working woman, not to mention single working mother, in our town. She took care of her own aging mother while she worked and raised me, and she still managed to have a personal life with a circle of friends and active community service. Long before there was a “women’s movement,” my mother was a pioneer and a role model, not because of any conscious activism, but because of a steadfast, day-to-day commitment to doing what she was “supposed to do.”

     My Mother was one of those “ordinary people,” but extraordinary in her ordinariness. She built a life for us, and created  a foundation of confidence for me that made me believe I could do anything, conquer anything, be anything. Her love for me was complete and unconditional. She believed I was exceptional and she always said that I was her “greatest accomplishment.” That used to make me anxious and sad when I was a younger woman because I thought investing all one’s hopes and dreams in a child was such a limited, “ordinary” thing for a woman to do.  But then I became a mother myself and now I understand: she was just being the best mother she could possibly be.

     And that is anything but ordinary.

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The Christmas Creep

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       It used to be that Christmas decorations began to appear in stores shortly after Halloween and carols started playing on the radio the day after Thanksgiving. I don’t know when all that changed exactly, but it certainly has. It probably did so gradually, a week earlier this year than last, then another week earlier, and then another week, and so on, until we find ourselves where we are now. This year, holiday decorations were already out in craft stores by Labor Day, and my favorite Sirius XM station abruptly switched to 24 hour holiday music the day after Halloween! I call this “the Christmas creep.”  

     No doubt driven by the fevered anticipation of a retail frenzy, the urgency and angst created by this creep nevertheless affects more than just shopping to fill those stockings and buck up those balance sheets. Suddenly, the Sunday newspaper is filled with grocery coupons and ads for holiday specialty foods; catalogues for everything from Honey Baked Hams to Viking River Cruises stuff the mailbox; live fir trees, guaranteed to be dead by Christmas Eve in spite of Prolong, are trucked in from the Pacific Northwest and and set up for sale; schedules of holiday events urge you to “mark your calendars,” and “make your reservations”; even the first Christmas cards and party invitations from overly-eager friends start to arrive.  And it’s only November!  

     So where does that leave Thanksgiving? 

     It leaves it largely overshadowed and certainly under-valued as THE one truly American family holiday that everyone who lives here, even those who aren’t American citizens but who are somehow related to those who are, can honor and enjoy. For the 7-8 percent of Americans who are non-Christian and don’t celebrate Christmas (Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and others), Thanksgiving is important as a culturally unifying and identifying holiday in which everyone can participate. For the other 22 percent of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated, and even for some of the 70 percent who identify as Christian but who don’t practice a particular religion, Thanksgiving can be celebrated without qualifying how or why, by just keeping the “thanks” in Thanksgiving. The faces of family members gathered around the turkey at the dinner table today might look very different from those pictured in Norman Rockwell’s famous 1942 painting, but they still celebrate the same shared American history and tradition of togetherness as ever. This year, it is important to remember that. 

     Now I understand that people love Christmas for a variety of reasons religious and otherwise, but many of us really, really love the fall season best of all.  For me, this time of year is calming and inspiring, even spiritually awakening. The colors, the temperatures, the crisp feel of the air make me slow down and think, turning my attention to the evolution of nature’s natural beauty, indeed to the evolution of life itself.  Of course, living in South Texas, I miss the brilliance of a New England landscape, though now that the weather has finally turned colder here, I find it easier to recall images of autumns past and to muster the mood for coccooning.   

     So, we harvest pumpkins, buy mums, and decorate the house with arrangements of pheasant feathers and fake fall leaves. We bake breads and muffins, can fruits and relishes, and replenish our supply of homemade chicken stock for the freezer.  With the season of plenty upon us, I feel reasonably happy and secure, especially once those Mallomars hit the shelves of my local supermarket! Thus fortified with a cookie and a cup of hot, black tea, I know I can withstand anything — even “the Christmas creep.”

   

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Reviving History

    Hamilton, the critically successful musical that opened on Broadway in 2015 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2016, is based on the 2004 biography written by historian Ron Chernow. The play traces the rise of Alexander Hamilton, an orphaned immigrant from the Caribbean island of Nevis, into one of America’s Founding Fathers, all set against the turbulent backdrop of the birth of the nation. Of course, it ends with the famous duel between him and Aaron Burr. 

     Regardless of the critical acclaim, the winning of 11 Tony awards, and the unprecedented ticket sales in spite of the  exorbitant prices, this show is truly stunning. Why? Because it is singularly unique, even for your usual spectacular Broadway musical. Amid a minimal set composed of a couple moving staircases, with minimal costumes involving a change of coats or hats, and with “color-conscientious” casting that reflects the diversity of America today, this show is all about the music and the history.

     The entire story is told in song and rap, in American musical forms: hip/hop, R&B, pop, soul and traditional Broadway show tunes. There are no big fantastic technics in this production, no chandeliers as in Phantom, no barricades as in Les Miséarables, no tire as in Cats. There is only the sheer genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda (the writer who also played the role of Hamilton in the original cast) and his lyrics, music, and story to keep the audience, even youngsters, thoroughly captivated for more than three hours. Even in “the cheap seats,” in the third tier where I was seated, it was beyond wonderful.

     Another factor contributing to Hamilton’s runaway success is no doubt the current political climate we find ourselves in as a nation right now. The incendiary rhetoric, the inflamed passions, and the premeditated positioning for power were all there in the early days of the Republic as they are today; cultural issues of class, race, and national origin, along with a general distrust of “the other,” were as dangerous and divisive then as they are now. And yet, here is a history we all share. There are explicit messages for us in this show, as well as a warning about the futility of “a duel to the death.”   

     Thus has the lesson of history been revived for hundreds of schoolchildren attending Hamilton, and thus was a perspective revived for me, as well. Not only did the show give me pause for thought and hope, but time spent in New York, a city I dearly love and which is arguably the greatest, most culturally-diverse and culturally-rich city in the United States, gave me a renewed perspective about what America really is, what it was meant to be. It enabled me to come home again and to face the often rigid provincialism of where I live. I don’t mean to accept it, mind you, but to face it with some hope and forbearance. (Indeed, the long lines at my local polling place this week and the unprecedented early voter turnout across the country is hope made visible.)

     From New York we went on into Connecticut for a few days. Wishing for a beautiful explosion of fall colors, we were, alas, disappointed. Days upon days of heavy rain and unusually warm temperatures meant that most leaves had been washed away and the remaining few simply withered and died. It was not pretty. But it was familiar and comforting. The coolish weather “felt like fall” at least, and the drive to favorite places in upstate Connecticut (Kent, Cornwall, Litchfield) revived me. It has been too long (three years) since I was in New England in autumn, and I have sorely missed it.

     So my own history has been revived from a visit to where I used to live for so long and so long ago. We get trapped in the present, and in the problems of the present, and often need the release of revisiting the past, our past, to remember who we are. Whether it’s national history or personal history, knowledge of he past can reconstitute us in the present and reveal new ways to move forward.

     And now that I’ve come home, I have finally, finally finished this art quilt I’ve been working on for six months for entry into a juried show. The theme of the exhibition is “Forced to Flee,” depicting those who have had to flee their homes/homelands because of war, famine, natural disasters, and other conditions beyond their control. My piece, titled “Toward Za’atari,” depicts early Syrian refugees in the desert in Jordan, migrating to find a better life. I took the photo in the desert when I was there several years ago, and it has haunted me ever since. When the call came out for this particular exhibition, I knew I had the perfect image for inspiration.   

     But translating this photo into an art quilt has been a real challenge for me , full of false starts and bad decisions, ripping out and re-doing, lack of concentration and loss of confidence. In all the years I have been quilting and working with fabrics, I have never, never experienced the frustration that this project has brought me. Yet, I have persevered and I feel that “Toward Za’atari” is respectable work. 

     In the world of art quilting — in any art, really— gaining acceptance into a global exhibition is always an artistic reach, but in this case, acceptance became beside the point. For me, it was the personal achievement of completing the work and meeting the deadline, of doing what I set out to do. That’s who I am, I recall.  It is my history revived.

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Just Try

   My husband just returned from attending a college reunion in another state for several days. It was good for him to have some time with his old friends, and good for me to have some time to myself without worrying about “what’s for dinner.”  Besides, I have that art quilt deadline bearing down on me, remember? (See explanation of the “Forced to Flee” global exhibit in my August 4 journal entry titled “In the Desert.”)

     Perfect timing: four uninterrupted days to sit in my studio and do nothing but concentrate on my entry. Of course, not exactly; life intrudes. When he left, I was at the embellishment stage of the project which, in this case, meant hand sewing thousands of tiny seed beads along the edges of a desert landscape to mimic mounds of blown sand. This was my fifth, and finally workable solution to this particular design problem, but it was time consuming (about 15 hours) and not without a couple setbacks: my dog (a 130 lb. Greater Swiss Mountain Dog) came in and sat in front of me to watch as I was patiently hand sewing, and then promptly sneezed right into my tray of tiny beads; then the thin, thin needle I was using (the only one I had that would fit) bent and broke, so I had to go out in search of #10 English beading needles. Eventually, with topical embellishments done, layers “sandwiched” and pinned, and a little practice before beginning, I was ready to start the free-motion quilting. 

     So I have begun, but I haven’t gotten as far as I would have liked. Everyday interruptions in my uninterrupted days caused starts and stops, of course, as did some new mechanical problems that cropped up with my sewing machine. Evaluation of  thread colors and stitching patterns made me decide to rip out some of what I had sewn, and complications with a new technique I was attempting sent me back to reference books and You Tube for a refresher. All in all, this whole project has been fraught with false starts, indecision, and technical difficulties from the very beginning. As the submission date nears, I am experiencing a great deal of stress and anxiety, not only because of the looming deadline, but because I fear that my vision surpasses my skill. And that possibility has me questioning the time, effort and commitment I have made to the whole art quilt endeavor at this stage of my life. 

     I recently read an op-ed piece by a Columbia law professor in The New York Times that seemed written just for me, especially right now. It was titled “In Praise of Mediocrity,” and the writer observes that the pursuit of excellence has corrupted our hobbies and inhibited our ability to relax and enjoy our pastimes for their own sake. (Tim Wu, Sunday Review section, September 30, 2018, p. 4). People don’t even admit to admit to having hobbies anymore, because they are soooo busy and have noooo  time for frivolous activities.  You have to be serious. If you’re a jogger, for example, it’s not enough just to run around the block; you have to train for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, it’s not enough to wile away a pleasant afternoon; you have to land a gallery show! (Hmmm…sounds familiar.)

     I think this attitude is particularly American. We are, after all, are a most industrious people who pursue excellence and achievement in everything we do — in education, in the workplace, in our communities, in civic projects, etc. The idea of leisure time, time spent dabbling or simply doing nothing but relaxing, is completely alien to the American character. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” That Protestant work ethic is deeply ingrained. 

     Granted, I am a Type A, and a bit of a perfectionist, but as a teacher/professor, my whole life has been dedicated to excellence. “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” I used to preach to my students. Sounds good as a motivating platitude, but I don’t have a lot of words of wisdom to help soothe the frazzled nerves of frustration when “your reach exceeds your grasp.”  Not even for myself. Like most Americans, I am product-oriented, not process-oriented. I want to see results and I want to point with pride to my accomplishments — not in competition with anyone else necessarily, but with myself. There are very few things in my life where I will accede that “good enough is good enough.” Not even in housekeeping.

     I have been sewing since I was a teenager, and quilting for over 20 years, but once I began, it became about learning and growing and getting more adept and accomplished. Everything for me is about learning and growing and getting more accomplished. I have been writing for most of my life, but there was never any question that I had to publish, had to achieve a certain level of professionalism. But then, writing and teaching were my professions, so …  I have been cooking for most of my married life, at first barely able to boil water, but then over time, more able. I’m not likely to compete on Master Chef as a home cook any time soon, but I have taken serious cooking courses at the CIA. The only, single activity — dare I say hobby — I do enjoy purely as an amateur, though I had ten years of lessons, is playing the piano. I do it for my own satisfaction, and only play “in public” for my family during  the holidays.

     This whole last year has been a time of reflection and re-evaluation for me, a time of stress and anxiety, yes, but maybe also a time of growth and accomplishment in a survival sort of way. This quilt project is an apt metaphor for what I’ve been through, more of an exercise in perseverance than in art. I will finish this piece by the deadline at the end of this month, but I may not submit it for the juried show if it is not among my best work. And I will be okay with that. The achievement for me right now is in the doing.

     Today is my birthday.  As usual, I am reflective. I am re-thinking my goals and ambitions going forward at this stage of my life. To quote one of my favorite authors/thinkers, Toni Morrison, from her 1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature, “Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try.”

     I will try, both to go forward and to do my best.

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In Ruins

   “He who travels to get away from himself carries ruins to ruins.” Emerson

     Okay, I’ll admit it: I am inveterate traveler who needs to travel, needs a regular change of venue, needs to get away, from myself, from my worries, from the ordinariness of my daily routine. Going away rejuvenates me as nothing else can, and that has been true for most of my adult life. At times of extreme stress, major meltdowns, and extended worry, a trip — not even an especially big trip — does wonders to restore my emotional equilibrium and adjust my perspective on my own small corner of the world. So yes, if you want to say that when I am in ruins, I travel to get away from myself … okay.

     I think the reason travel has such a therapeutic effect on me is because of the uncertainty of it all, especially these days. Traveling  demands that I pay attention and be fully present in the moment. The expectation of what might happen and what I might encounter is central to the adventure of  any trip, of course, but it is also incredibly freeing in a personal way, particularly for someone like me who always feels responsible and in charge. But, once on that plane, that train, that ship, or in that car, I leave all the worry about plans, preparations, and arrangements behind because there is simply nothing else to be done. I am forced forward into the present and must deal with whatever occurs. “If something happens, don’t call me,” I always say when I leave. Prior arrangements will prevail.

     Curiously, I have always dealt better with the urgency of the unexpected than with the monotony of sameness. That’s probably because I don’t really pay attention to most of the “stuff” in my everyday life. While many people find the stress and uncertainties of travel — overbooked flights, lost luggage, weather delays, long lines, social unrest, terrorists alerts, accidents, pickpockets — I find that I am actually calmer and more collected when faced with such challenges.  I often surprise myself with my own resilience and ingenuity in these situations. I have been through a lot at this point, from missed flights and nights stranded in dangerous places, to major accidents and medical emergencies in remote locations, to the theft of my bag with everything in it (passport, license, credit cards, money) right before I was supposed to come home. But all these experiences, as harrowing as some were at the time, have helped me develop a fundamental knowledge of how the world works, almost everywhere, regardless of culture, country, or continent; that knowledge, in turn, has made me a more confident and appreciative traveler. 

     We just returned from ten days in the Mediterranean, mostly to places we have been before and that we love. Even when you return to familiar places, especially years later, you can find fresh insights and experiences. We went back to both  Florence and Rome, for example, and I was surprised at how crowded and commercial both cities are now from what I remember years ago. The Colosseum and the Roman Forum are still impressive, of course, and I still loved the shopping in Florence and bought a beautiful cameo there. But I did not love the long lines to enter the museums and the crushing crowds in the Palacio del Vecchio that made  admiring “The Rape of the Sabine Women” (my favorite sculpture there) almost impossible. Florence was once a contemplative city, but it isn’t anymore, at least not in September when tourist season for travelers from Europe and Asia apparently hasn’t ended.

     In contrast, St. Tropez is still St. Tropez, with that French joie de vive, with the beautiful shops and the small restaurants and the lingering ghosts of Scott Fitzgerald stories.  I even remembered the streets and found my way back to the once famous Hotel De Ville (now used as a city hall). The Côte d’Azur is a glamorous enclave, out of another time perhaps, but today attracting a new generation of romance seekers and a new incarnation of  the so-called “rich and famous.” Yachts in the basin are, in fact, bigger and showier than ever!

     Further along the Mediterranean Coast into Spain, we stopped in Málaga, the boyhood home of Picasso and the location of a museum containing about 200 of his works. (The much larger, more comprehensive Picasso Museum with over 4,200 works is in Barcelona, where the entire collection is arranged chronologically room by room, beginning with his earliest paintings from his teenage years.) Though we love Spain and have spent time in other parts of the country, we had not been to Málaga before, and it did not disappoint. Nor did the beautiful seaside resort town of Alicante, with its wide boulevards and plain air cafes. And did I mention the lovely wines and cheeses and tapas in all these fine Italian, French and Spanish establishments? 

     Needless to say, “my ruins” have returned home refreshed and refurbished — and five pounds heavier. We needed this trip, because it has been a long, tough year. And I needed this type of trip, one that was a little easier and a little less demanding than our more exotic adventures tend to be. Sometimes more familiar destinations are comforting. Even so, the uncertainty of what you might encounter is central to the adventure of travel, if you are open to it.

     Otherwise, you might as well stay at home.