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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.

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Friendship

     It occurred to me last Monday during a quiet time, quite out of the blue and without any particular prompt, that my house phone had not rung once all weekend. Not once. A few texts had come in on the cell phone, but they were inconsequential: a sale notification or a prescription drug pick-up. I suddenly realized that I/we don’t, as a rule, get many phone calls anymore, unless you count robo calls, which I don’t.

     That led me to realize that the underlying reason I don’t get calls is that I don’t have many friends anymore, at least not local friends with whom I speak and interact often, much less daily. My whole life, I have had an active social life with circles of close friends, not necessarily overlapping circles mind you, but people whom I saw regularly, talked to daily or often, and with whom I was in more or less frequent contact. Those friendships have been cultivated from playmates in childhood, classmates in college, colleagues at work,  and co-workers in various community endeavors throughout my adult life. While I am happy to say that I have maintained most of my closest friendships over these years, I do not now have a local cadre of close friends where I live whose company and conversations I can routinely enjoy. And I miss that.

     Part of the reason for this is that I am retired. Yes, I moved back to my home state of Texas, but most of the people I was close to in my youth have also long-since moved away and created new lives elsewhere, as did I.  My one dear, oldest childhood friend, who lived nearby in Austin and whom I was thrilled to once again be able to spend time with, quite suddenly died of cancer about a year after I moved back. Unfortunately, I have lost several close friends over the years — some at unusually young ages — to accidents, illness, and other unforeseen events. As one ages, of course, death becomes the great “robber baron” of friendships. 

     Another result of being retired is that one is no longer actively thrust into the social activities  automatically generated by career and family; if geographic relocation is also part of a move to retirement, then even the casual friendships developed within local organizations, churches, and other activities are suspended. Suddenly one must actively seek out new ways to connect with others of similar interests and proclivities, commonly done by joining clubs or doing volunteer work. Now I’ve never been much of “a joiner,” and I’m not even much of a networker, especially since the passions I pursue (reading, writing, art quilting) are rather solitary endeavors. I will occasionally attend a  professional conference or make a one-time commitment to a community service project or volunteer effort, but I am really not interested in being regularly scheduled for anything. I just don’t seem to have a yearning to belong in that sort of “tribal” way. 

      Developing real friends, meaningful friends, is an individual enterprise and it takes effort. It can be exciting to venture into a relationship with someone new, but it demands a dedication to openness and exploration, and it requires time and attention. These days, when people are so divided and even conversations about the weather can turn into arguments over global warming, I simply don’t have the patience or the time to be polite. I want intellectual rigor and real discussion, not inane conversation. Maybe I’m just too old to endure the tedium of trying to establish a context from which reasonable people can establish real communication. There is simply no easy way to adequately explain a lifetime of experiences to a new acquaintance and yet, without some frame of reference, how can two people possibly get beyond the banalities of casual conversation, much less forge a real friendship. Who wants to hand out resumés in retirement? 

        My friends are my family and they have been for many, many years. They are the siblings I didn’t have as an only child, but they are better than siblings because I have chosen them — and I am very selective. We choose friends for different reasons. The idea of a BFF aside, no one person can be expected to fill all needs: some are supportive, some are challenging, some are intellectual, some share common interests, and some are just plain comforting. I am proud to say that my life-long group of dear friends is a very diverse group of people who are nothing like me in terms of the accidents of birth — nationality, religion, race, sexual orientation, regional backgrounds or political affiliations. After all, confirmation bias in choosing like-minded friends is no more conducive to personal growth and understanding than it is to discerning the truth from news outlets. We need others to expand our horizons, not constrict them.

     All relationships take work to develop and sustain, but the effort is worth it. I have friends, close friends, of 40-50-60 years or more. They have been a lifeline for a lifetime for me. People who “knew you when” often know you best, so there’s no need to explain or pretend. They know what you’re made of, they get your humor, they see your soul. They will cheer you when you’re right, support you when you’re down, and call you to account when you’re wrong. The best of them will always help you be your own best self, but they will also accept you when you aren’t.

     “Show me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are,” the old saying goes. I will gladly, proudly be judged by that standard. And it’s okay if my phone doesn’t ring as much as it used to. I’m starting to like the silence.

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Back To School

By the end of August, I am more than ready for the summer to be over, especially here in South Texas and especially this summer. Everything is brown and dry and dead, the unrelenting heat is, well … still unrelenting (at over 100 degrees), and the lazy, hazy days laden with dust and allergens have kept me congested and lethargic. It’s enough already! I’m ready for fall.

     Of course, fall comes here in name and craft-store decorations only. Our heat continues well into and beyond September, along with the threat of hurricanes.  Since school starts in San Antonio in early August, there is but the faintest connection between autumn and the actual resumption of the academic year. All those clichéd commercials showing happy children skipping through fallen leaves toward the school bus are misleading; a more apt local ad would feature happy moms and dads skipping through check-out lines on the back-to-school tax-free weekend held every August.

     Yet, even though I haven’t been in a classroom in almost a decade now, I still experience those familiar back-to-school urges, and still honor many of my same old routines. It’s not nostalgia or that I especially miss the classroom, but rather that years of being a student, and years of being the parent of a student, and decades of being a teacher/professor have instilled certain rhythms in the way I live and work. I am lazy and disengaged in the summer; I am active and productive from September to May. This is what I have been trained to do.

     I began my fall preparations last week with attention to pencils and papers — what else?  I went through and reorganized all my stationery, cleaned out my desk drawer, got refills for my favorite pens, and checked my stash of special occasion cards (lots of birthdays this time of year). As you might imagine, I am a great letter-writer, card-sender, note-jotter; if the U.S. Post Office goes out of business, it certainly won’t be my fault!  Of course I delight in beautiful papers and pens, but I’m also particular about my everyday legal pads and ballpoints.  Even as a kid, I was very persnickety about my notebooks and binders and the contents of my pencil case, so shopping for school supplies was always a BIG event.

     The other big event was shopping for the back-to-school wardrobe. As an adult, especially one living in the Northeast, I adapted this ritual into the changing over of the clothes closet. White linens and light shirts and slacks get packed away in the cedar chest, along with swimsuits and patio dresses, and out come jackets and sweaters, along with the heavier, dressier — what I call “more serious” — clothes needed for meetings and professional activities and the holidays. It’s quite a chore, granted one that made a lot more sense when I lived in a  climate where the seasons would actually change, but still …  Texans might wear flip-flops with a fur-trimmed hoodie when the first “norther” arrives, but even they don’t wear white linen after Labor Day!

     Once I became a teacher, back-to-school meant lesson planning and research for new units I wanted to undertake in the classroom. These days, though, the lessons and research I do are generally occasioned by up-coming travel plans, not for teaching others but for my own preparation. We have a couple trips planned for this fall, including one to Europe, so I have begun to brush up on my language skills and review travel vocabulary.  I also have a reading list to educate myself about some less-familiar destinations. If there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s to “study up!”   

     My fall art projects have already begun — and begun again — on this current art quilt that is due in October (see last journal entry). I am still at it. I have to quit procrastinating, make some decisions, and finally get this underway so I can meet the submission deadline with confidence while still relaxing and enjoying my fall trips. I also have a major magazine assignment ahead of me, as well as a couple other new writing and art projects taking shape in my head. Contrary to popular myth, creativity is not all spontaneous inspiration; like any other pursuit, artistic growth means setting goals and working toward them, practicing, planning and learning as you go.

     So, here at the end of August, I’m in a back-to-school frame of mind, hot weather be damned. Luckily, fall is Hatch chili season here in the Southwest, and the consumption of chilies actually makes you sweat and cools you down. Chilies grow in hot climates, and people who live in hot climates tend to eat spicy hot foods. (Note: you don’t think of chili hot in New England cooking, or Scandinavian, or British, or German, or …) Luckily, I have stocked up on my chilies (see above photo),  just in time for back-to-school. I am cooling off and moving into fall.

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In the Desert

     I love deserts — which is a good thing, considering that where I live is rapidly becoming one. The world’s best deserts, the ones that haven’t been defiled and defaced by over-development and tourist debris, are stark, uncluttered, and magical. They speak to us from primordial places, from the swirl of wind and sea and rock; they point to our beginnings, and maybe foreshadow our ends. From dust to dust…

     I have been fortunate to travel a great deal in my life, as of now to five continents and over 40 countries, but only a few places have moved me to tears. The Sahara in Egypt was one of them. The vast beauty, the metaphysical power, and the historical importance of this area of the Fertile Crescent,  simply overwhelmed me. The first day we arrived in Cairo, however, the sands of the Sahara literally overwhelmed me. The atmosphere was so hazy and full of dust that you could barely breathe, much less see the pyramids (which are usually visible from almost anywhere in the City). I asked our driver if Cairo always suffered from such air pollution. “Oh, this is not pollution,” he assured me. “This is the end of the Khamaseen. It’s been like this for about five days now, but it should be clear tomorrow.” And so it was. When I woke up the next morning, I beheld a stunning view of the pyramids right outside my hotel window!

     The Khamaseen is a desert cyclone that sends sporadic plumes of dust up off the Sahara during a fifty-day period in the late spring. (Khama is the Arabic word for fifty, hence the name.) The winds eventually move over other parts of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, then on to Europe and across the Atlantic into the Caribbean, and sometimes as far as the coastal areas of the southern US. As if we needed any help from the Sahara to intensify the oppressive heat and drought generated by consecutive days of 100+ degree heat, the Khamaseen arrived in San Antonio this year on July 18 and stayed around for a couple days, bigger and hazier than ever. The good news, though, is that throughout the summer, the dust sits in a layer over the cooler, more humid air above the Atlantic Ocean, and that cap of Saharan dust actually helps to suppress hurricane formation in the Caribbean.  After the trauma and destruction of Harvey last year, from which many of us have yet to recover, it’s about time South Texas gets a break!

     At 3.6 million square miles, the Sahara is the largest, best-known desert in the world, but there are many others each with a unique character and appearance. (Note: sahara means desert in Arabic.)  Not all deserts are alike. Sands are composed of loose, granular particles made from minerals, organic material and rock; the composition of the sands accounts for color variations from white, to beige, to gray, to pink, to red —  often even within the same desert. Sand particle size can range from almost microscopic (very fine) up to 2 millimeters (coarse).  Atmospheric conditions, shifting winds, and constant saltation cause variations in the height of the dunes and ripples and create the beautiful, constantly-changing patterns on the sand surface. From the White Sands in New Mexico to the Wadi Rum in Jordan to the “singing sands” of the Gobi to the red rocks of the Mojave, each desert has its own unique mystery and magic, its own quiet story to tell about the earth and the people who have managed to survive there.

     My love of deserts notwithstanding, you might still reasonably wonder why I seem more than a little obsessed with such detailed information about them. The answer is that I am basically living in one —thinking about it, dreaming about it, studying it, drawing it, analyzing it, and fretting over how to bring it to life — in fabric. I mentioned in my last post that I had  begun to design a new art quilt for entry into a juried global exhibit this fall. The theme of the show is “Forced to Flee,” to represent a flight for survival from natural disaster, oppression, war or some other peril. The moment the call for entries went out, I knew had the perfect entry idea.

     Several years ago I was in Jordan just when the Palestinian crisis had ended and an early trickle of Syrian refugees had begun. I took a photo of some young men carrying their belongings with them, walking away from me toward some buildings on the horizon in the vast northern desert. The scene is very stark, but very beautiful, one of those accidental “perfect compositions” that all amateur photographers hope for, but rarely achieve. So, there was no question that this picture would be the inspiration for my entry. I gathered supplies, made the basic pattern, and started auditioning fabrics. And then I hit a roadblock, several actually, in trying to capture the desert, with its many color variations and topical patterns, all of which have to be quilted in, along with considerations for wind direction, sun angles, and light reflections. Thus, a composition that seems fairly “simple” in overall design becomes infinitely complicated to execute once you get started.

     Nevertheless, I did get started, then started again, and now have “deconstructed” the basic foundation of the whole thing and essentially started over. With the constant interruptions and demands in my daily life that afford me little uninterrupted studio time, with a welcome trip, but a two-week absence, planned for next month, and with that October competition deadline looming large and coming fast, “the sands of time” have me in more of a haze and daze than the Khamaseen. 

     Pablo Picasso said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” To that end, I have become obsessed with deserts.