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Fascinating Rhythm

 “Fascinating Rhythm” is an old, old George and Ira Gershwin song first introduced by Fred and Adele Astaire in the Broadway musical Lady Be Good in 1926. It has what Ira Gershwin described as “tricky polyrhythms,” which made it hard for him to write the lyrics, but easy for Fred Astaire’s frenetic singing and dancing: “Fascinating rhythm, You’ve got me on the go!” 

      It is also the kind of tune that is hard to get rid of once it gets into your head, and it has been stuck in mine lately. Perhaps that is more than just an odd coincidence, since I have been unusually preoccupied with the rhythms of my own life lately. Now that Covid has apparently abated (somewhat), I see that I’m expected to easily accommodate the “new normal.” Already I’m getting sideways glances for continuing to wear my face mask or surprised responses when I decline to attend a local meeting. So in addition to everything else I have to worry about, I now have a new, post-Covid adaptive anxiety! “Fascinating rhythm, You’ve got me on the go!”

     My “old normal” way back pre-Covid was every bit as frenetic as the Gershwin song. I was a whirling dervish of activity with organizations and functions and domestic projects and, of course, a steady schedule of international and domestic travel. Even though we are retired, my husband and I kept up the active lifestyle and social interactions that had characterized our pre-retirement professional lives, albeit in different ways. And then, almost two years ago to this day, all that stopped, completely. We were, in fact, packing to leave for Australia when Covid hit and suddenly the trip was cancelled and everything changed. Now I realize we weren’t alone in this abrupt to our lives, but for me, a real Type A hyperactive person, this was more than just a little interruption in the way that I lived my life, even my retirement life; this was cause to hit the reset button.

     It took me a while, as it did almost everyone, to recognize the fact that Covid was not just a temporary thing that was going to go away anytime soon, and it took me more than a little while to find a rhythm for this new reality. Once I had busied myself with cancelling travel plans, recouping costs, and commiserating with my friends, I settled into a reluctant acceptance of a long haul of restrictions and isolation. As did so many who found themselves at home 24/7, I threw myself into household projects and my creative life. Luckily, I write and I do art quilts, and those endeavors not only saved my sanity, but actually brought new satisfactions and improved my skills. I acclimated to the slower rhythm of my days, still setting modest goals and striving to accomplishing them, yes, but at a steadier and calmer pace. As year one of Covid turned into year two, I continued to create and communicate with my friends, albeit from afar, and I actually found this new way of life less hectic and more focused. I adjusted surprisingly well to a hermetic existence and, without outside pressures and expectations, I relaxed. Sometimes it takes a “time out,” even a forced time out, to recognize how fortunate we are and to be grateful for what we have.

     But now here I am coming into year three of a malingering pandemic. Having adapted comfortably to the sameness of endless days and having adjusted nicely to a slower pace, I am abruptly expected to get back in gear and get with the “new normal.” A part of me wants to, really  — I want to see my friends and go out to dinner and travel and have some fun and not be wary of everyone around me, but my rhythms have not yet recalibrated, nor am I entirely sure they ought to. 

     Oddly enough, today is the vernal equinox, a day when the hours of daylight and dark are equal. Centuries ago, it was considered the mark of a new astrological year, when people would perform rituals to clean out old energy both in themselves and in their homes. (Hence, the spring cleaning routines so many of us observe today.) On a deeper level, the equinox  is thought to represent a period of struggle between light and dark, of life and death, and so it highlights a need for finding balance. These spiritual interpretations of the equinox actually originated in ancient times, but seem especially relevant today when our world is so starkly divided between light and darkness and when balance and reason are in short supply. 

     Again, is it more than just a coincidence that the Senate just passed a law this week to make Daylight Savings Time the one official time of the Country beginning in 2023. With little discussion and even less fanfare, the law is nevertheless already controversial, because there are not not just two sides of argument on this issue, but three. It’s all about circadian rhythms, you see. Those against the law, including most scientists and sleep study experts, argue that this is the wrong time to adopt overall because Daylight time leaves the mornings darker and, thus, is more disruptive to sleep cycles and human circadian rhythms. A third group argues that we ought to leave things as they are because … well, that’s the way it’s been for ages. Who knows? But I will admit that I am finding my own wake/sleep cycle interrupted these first few days into Daylight Savings time. I can’t seem to make myself get up and do my morning walk in the dark, and I hate feeling sleepy while the sun is still high at 8 o’clock in the evening.  I guess I will adjust eventually — I do every year— but experiencing jet lag without the benefit of an overseas vacation is a real bummer.  

     So, here we are — the whole Country needs a reset. I’m going to have to get over my anxiety about interacting with others and gradually accept careful interactions; I’m going to have to brave the risks of limited travel (domestic, at least) in order to see friends and restore some social connections with those who are most important to me; I’m going to have to expand my days to include some activity with local groups and organizations; and I’m going to have to adjust the rhythms of my days going forward to achieve a reasonable balance between racing and meandering, 

     None of this is easy; rhythms are personal and habit-forming. Tonight’s super moon happens to coincide with this year’s equinox, and that won’t happen again until 2030. As I look out on that brilliant orb in the sky, maybe I’ll be inspired to dance in the moonlight. Fascinating rhythm. Can you get me on the go?

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A Winter of Discontent

     During the 40+ years I did not reside in my home state, the main thing I missed about Texas (besides my Mother) was the sky. The sky here is so wide, so blue, so often completely cloudless, and sometimes so spectacularly vivd that only photos of bluebonnets and Texas longhorns rival its replications on souvenir postcards. Because Texas is vast, the sky stretches from horizon to horizon, sometimes fully visible on vacant lots and open roadways  even in heavily-populated areas. When I was a small child, my father and I would lie on our backs in the open yard next to our house in the evening and look up. We would watch the shooting stars and he would describe all the constellations we could see. He died when I was only six, but even today, those lie-down lessons are some of my most vivid memories of him — and I still know my constellations. He was a pilot and he loved the sky. So do I.

     At this time of year, the sky is especially vivid in a winter sunset. We have had a particularly cold season this year, and that produces some of the same color as extreme heat does in the summertime. I don’t know the atmospheric particulars of these phenomena, but I always think of the old maritime saying: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailer’s warning.” Accordingly, a sky such as the one pictured above would indicate hope, at least for the next day.

     But I’m finding it hard to hang on to hope these days, having lost it so often after just the briefest glimmers over these last long and difficult years. Yes, Covid appears to be waning, at least for now, but there’s a giant collective hangover that won’t be cured with a simple Alka-Seltzer: inflation is up, the blame game is ugly, and the crazies are out in full force and running for office. With a dearth of sensible solutions, we’re banning books, buying guns, and cheering trucker convoys.  We are all still angry and tired and aggrieved and, most of all, lonely; we miss our friends, our former activities, our civil society, and our plans for the future. Even the much-anticipated winter Olympics, which might have brought devoted fans some new heroes and moments of inspiration, turned out to be, as a USA Today article proclaimed “…the strangest, most controversial, most unwelcoming Olympic games of our lifetime.” (Christine Brennan, February 20, 2022)  Unfortunately, having watched it all, I have to agree. Even the Olympics were reduced to a familiar cliché: unprecedented.

     And now there is the invasion of Ukraine to epitomize “the winter of our discontent,” with Russia’s own Richard III living in a world that hates him. As in the Shakespearian play, winter once again becomes a metaphor for a time of oppression and sadness, the sympathetic landscape for malevolent evil and ambition while Russian tanks role over snow-packed roads into Kyiv. (As Putin wages this military assault in retro-WWII style, will he remember what happened to German tanks when the land thawed?)

     Yet, irony of ironies, this outrageous transgression by a deranged dictator might ultimately be the source of our hope and salvation. Here are the moments of grit and determination the world has been looking for. Here is Chef José Andres and his World Central Kitchen feeding Ukrainian refugees at the Polish border; here are Ukrainians living elsewhere returning home to fight for their country; here are world relief agencies coming together to provide shelters with food, clothing and medicine for displaced persons; here are the Western nations, even the the notoriously neutral Switzerland, coming together to condemn Putin’s unprovoked aggression and coordinate serious  sanctions to deter him. And here is the young Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a former television comedian and winner of  “Dancing With the Stars,” emerging as a once-in-a-century leader and patriot by refusing to be bullied and by not abandoning the fight for freedom even in the face of what seems like insurmountable odds. “I don’t need a ride,” he said when the US offered transport to safety, “I need more ammunition!”  

     These are visions of leadership, patriotism, and humanity that have been missing in the world; these are visions of hope and inspiration that might finally free us all from the paralyzing fear of forces beyond our control and deliver us from still more winters of discontent. Faith in our better  selves is a powerful weapon, as Putin is finding out, and examples of that faith give us all hope whether we’re Ukrainian or not.

     So I will continue to enjoy the brilliance of these late-winter sunsets and try to muster the hope they promise for the next day. “One day at a time,” my Mother used to say. Isn’t that how we always make it through the long days of winter into the delights of spring?  

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Hearts and Flowers

 Because I’m a seamstress, I have plenty of holiday-themed table linens, so I spent this morning washing and ironing some of them and setting out Valentine’s decorations. As I was ironing (something I realize most people don’t do at all anymore, even for their clothing, much less for cloth napkins), it occurred to me that most people don’t put out many seasonal holiday decorations in their homes anymore either. Oh, they may put up a Christmas tree, or dye eggs to fill a basket at Easter, or set out pumpkins at the front door on Halloween, but unless they have a family with children, that’s usually about the extent of seasonal decorating. All my fuss over relatively minor holidays makes me something of an anomaly, I know.

     My grandmother, with whom we lived while I was growing up, was a real curmudgeon long before she had accumulated enough age to be entitled to an attitude (if you ever are). When birthdays or Christmas or other holidays rolled around, she would scoff Scrooge-like and say, “Nothing to it. Just another day of the year.”

     To which my Mother would reply, with unfailing good humor, “Well, Mom, nothing’s special unless you make it so.” That became my mantra: I choose to make it so.

     Years ago when I was teaching in a large, urban high school in Connecticut, I never let even minor occasions go unnoticed. I’d bring in themed cookies or snacks (that was when you were allowed to bring in food) or plan a little fun holiday game with prizes, and of course, I’d put up appropriate  decorations. For Christmas, when we weren’t allowed to display only religious symbols such as a tree or a menorah, I really went over the top with decorations not just for Christmas and Hanukkah, but also for other holidays celebrated by our students at that time of year: Kwanzaa, Dinali, Posadas Navideñas, Têt and the Chinese New Year, even Boxing Day for good measure. My classroom looked like a clearance sale at  Party City. The kids would laugh, and roll their eyes, but then bring in additional decorations of their own to add to the mix. “If you’re gonna’ go over the top,” they’d tease, “then you may as well go big!”

     Nothing is special unless you make it so, and everyone likes to feel special.

     Not surprisingly, I’m also a big greeting-card sender. A friend of mine in Connecticut owned the local Hallmark store where I distinguished myself as one of the very first Gold Crown Rewards card holders. “Keep sending those Hallmarks,” she’d urge every time I came into the store. “I’ve got two kids to send to college and that takes a lot of greeting cards.” (She did send both kids to college, by the way, and one of them grew up to become the largest, most successful Hallmark franchise owner in NewEngland. I like to think that I contributed to his success.)

     Social critics (like me) might criticize the stereotypical images of the perfect home and the perfect family often portrayed on greeting cards, and cynics (like me) might find fault with the saccharine messages too often found inside. Yet, an actual greeting card chosen with a particular recipient in mind, hand-signed and accompanied by a brief note, and then sent through the mail, beats a text message or an e-card in eliciting “specialness” every time, if for no other reason than it can be saved and enjoyed over and over again. I even use cards as decorations, especially the beautiful pop-ups so popular now. As those Hallmark commercials always proclaimed, “When you care enough…”

     I certainly don’t consider myself a romantic by any stretch of the definition, but I do care enough — about relationships, about letting those who matter to me know they are valued, and about sharing little things that can make us all feel special. That may mean decorating the house for holidays with my family, setting an inviting table even for routine dinners, or remembering birthdays, anniversaries, and other personal occasions. To a great extent, the cards and notes I’ve written and received, and yes, the phone calls and e-mails and e-cards too, have been the connections that have kept me from feeling so isolated and alone all through this pandemic, but more importantly, connections like that have enabled me, an only child with a small family, to sustain many life-long friendships that have spanned the intervening years and miles between us for decades.   

     So, bring on the hearts and flowers this Valentine’s Day and make all those you love feel special. Heck, make yourself feel special with some chocolates or a bouquet of roses.  After all, Valentine’s Day is not just another day.

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The Olympics are Here

 It’s winter and unusually cold here already in South Texas with several nights dipping below freezing and several days hovering just above.  After the devastation caused by last year’s severe winter storm, my husband is busily trying to protect his fragile flowers and shrubs with “plankets,” alternately covering and uncovering as the temperatures and sunshine shift. I, meanwhile, stay indoors. I don’t like winter, even a mild one.

     You’d think that after 40 years spent in Connecticut I would have come to at least some nostalgic appreciation for the beauty and calm of a snowy landscape, the homey scenes of all those Hallmark holiday cards, but nope. We went skiing with friends once up to Sugar Bush, Vermont. The landscape was beautiful and the weather was perfect for downhill and cross country — or so I was told. I spent the whole time drinking hot tea in the lodge and enjoying the fireside ambiance — when I wasn’t shopping for those cute only-in-ski-country sweaters in the shops.

     With that backstory, it might surprise you to hear that I am an avid, ardent, and fairly knowledgeable fan of winter sports, especially of the Winter Olympics, and most especially of the ice skating, skiing and ski jumping competitions. I trace that enthusiasm to one distinct source in my childhood: the Ice Capades. 

     Founded in 1940, the Ice Capades was a touring theatrical show featuring skating performances by former Olympic and national ice skating champions who had retired from competition. With its lavish costumes, daring choreography, and big-name stars, it was something of an icy Las Vegas review, only more family friendly. The shows toured cities large and small all around the country, and by the 1950s, it had become a popular theatrical event even in places like South Texas where ice and winter sports were decidedly unfamiliar.

     My Mother first took me to the Ice Capades in late October, 1958 (the 19th edition) at the Memorial Coliseum in Corpus Christi, Texas. Corpus was only a 90 mile drive, so we could easily go down and back, have a nice restaurant meal and attend a matinee performance all in one day. My memories of that first show (and subsequent ones in later years) are a little vague, anchored mostly by my Mother’s commentary on the stars we were seeing such as Sonja Henie (Norwegian-American three-time Olympic gold medalist, 1928, 32, & 36), whom I remember being applauded as something of a “grand dame” as she slowly waltzed around the rink on the arm of a younger male skater, although she was only in her 40s at the time; Frick and Frack, the famous slapstick comedy team (Frick with a new partner because Frack had become ill); and of course, those crowd-pleasing pinwheels, wherein a line of 32 skaters spun around (a move my Mother insisted was inspired by the Radio City Rockettes, which she had seen). And I clearly remember always being cold in the arena.

     The Ice Capades and similar spin-off shows (Ice Follies, Stars on Ice) were popular for several decades well into the 1990s, but by then, comprehensive television coverage of ice skating and other winter sports had educated the public and cultivated among us a preference for displays of competitive skills over kitschy theatricals (the 1992 theatrical drama of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Harrigan scandal  notwithstanding). The first live coverage of the winter Olympics on American television was of the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California. CBS paid $50,000 for coverage rights. Trusted news anchor Walter Cronkite hosted the telecasts on-site, and Olympic men’s gold medalist Dick Button (1948 & 52) pioneered the role of ice skating commentator, a role he continued to dominate on television regardless of network for 50 years. 

     I was one of those who started watching the winter Olympics in 1960, and have seen every one since. I have vivid memories of favorite ice skaters and their signature moves:  perky Dorothy Hamill (gold 1976) with her distinctive haircut and the Hamill Camel still done today; Michelle Kwan (1998 silver and 2002 bronze) and her effortless, gliding change-of-edge spiral; Scott Hamilton and his back-flips on ice (four US championships and Olympic gold in 1984); Brian Boitano (gold 1988) with his one-hand-over-head jump called the Tano; the beautiful East German Katerina Witt whose moving routine to music from Schindler’s List won her gold (in 1984 & 88) without even attempting an axel; and fancy foot-work dancer Kurt Browning of Canada, a four-time Canadian champion, four-time World champion and three-time Olympian, who was actually the first men’s figure skater to land a quadruple toe loop at the World’s competition way back in 1988.

     But beyond them all, there was still my forever favorites, ice dancers Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean from Great Britain, with their Olympic gold performance to Ravel’s Bolero in 1984. It actually moved me to tears as I watched it live from Sarajevo, and I can still visualize every move of their routine when I hear the music today. The control, the passion, the perfect synchronization between music and movement. Their skill and expression netted a perfect artistic score of 6.  

     Ice skaters were always my favorites, but there are other Olympic greats I remember: Jean-Claude Killy, 1968 Grenoble triple gold medalist in Alpine skiing, who became an international heartthrob and star, along with ice skater Peggy Flemming, who was the only American to win a gold medal that year; Noriaka Kasai of Japan, the only athlete to compete in eight winter games, who took the silver medal in large-hill ski jump at Sochi in 2014, which made him the oldest ski jumper to ever medal; Bonnie Blair, American speed skater who dominated the sport by winning five gold medals and one bronze over three Olympic games (1988, 92 & 94); Apolo Anton Okno, American short-track speed skater who won eight medals over three games (2002, 06 & 10); Tara Lapinski, at age 15 the youngest female gold medalist in the winter games (in figure skating), 1998; and those famous underdogs, the four-man bobsled team from Jamaica, who didn’t win anything, but who brought out such good will and good-natured sportsmanship in Alberta, Canada, in 1988.

     In 1960, television offered about 20 hours of covered events; this year, NBC will offer over 200 hours of coverage on their major networks (NBC, CNBC and USA, plus streaming on Peacock). Because of Covid restrictions, the games will be coming to you from — are you ready?? —the NBC studios in my old hometown of Stamford, CT, where roughly 900 announcers, technicians, and support staff will manage coverage from afar (with some technical and support staff in Beijing). 

     Covid or no Covid, I’m excited. I’ve already planned my easy-prep meals and invited ourselves, with bring-along dinners, over to our son’s house to watch his humongous TV. (This is our version of “the big game,” though I’m afraid I am not an ice hockey fan even at the winter Olympics.)  I will be watching Nathan Chen in men’s ice skating and expecting Shaun White and Chloe Kim to each capture gold again in snow boarding. I’m also looking forward to the new sports of big air skiing, mixed-team ski jumping, mixed team skating relays, and mixed-team aerials. And guess what else? The Jamaicans are back! They have qualified both a four-man and a two-man bobsled team, and for good measure, have their first female athlete in the monobob (another new event). 

     The 2022 Winter Olympics are here and it’s going to be great. Maybe the Jamaicans can help thaw the world a little, and I won’t have to be cold in the home arena.

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Afternoon Delights!

     Wayne Thiebaud died on Christmas Day. He was 101. The name probably doesn’t mean much to you — it didn’t to me either until a few weeks ago —but you would no doubt instantly recognize his delightful paintings of cakes, pies, and ice cream cones. Often associated with the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, Thiebaud hardly shared the consumerist satire of Pop artists like Warhol however; rather, he celebrated the simple objects of everyday life with playful honesty and genuine respect. Whether it’s a piece of pie, a pair of shoes, or a picturesque landscape, each subject is given his undivided attention and elevated from the merely mundane to the realm of reverent nostalgia. His art inspires us to notice.

     Now that we are in the throes of yet another Covid wave and in the thick of the cold, grey days of winter (even here in South Texas), I have been looking to be inspired for my next art quilt project, something light and humorous. For some reason, I had started thinking about macaroons, visualizing them lined up on a table, “marching,” if you will, toward an afternoon respite. I even  had a title: “The March of the Macaroons.” Never mind that I don’t really like macaroons myself, they are colorful and cute and would be well suited to the small composition I’m planning to donate to a silent auction fund-raiser at my Studio Art Quilts convention later this spring.  

     Not only do I not like macaroons, I don’t bake them or buy them either, so that meant that I had to do some research on the assorted kinds and colors commonly made.  And it was in the exploration of macaroons and their many, many manifestations on Pinterest that I discovered, or should say re-discovered, the artwork of Wayne Thiebaud, thereby propelling me into one of those on-line detours down a rabbit hole so familiar to researchers everywhere. 

     I soon forgot all about my macaroon project and, instead, became engulfed in ah-ha moments of recognition as I explored Thiebaud’s cityscapes, landscapes, portraits, hats, shoes, fast foods, and of course, his “confections”. I ordered books from Amazon and notecards from Pomegranate; I read critical reviews of Thiebaud shows in newspapers and magazines,; I explored the work in his gallery, Acquavella, and…  And then he died. Here was an artist whose work I had often seen and admired over the years, and yet I hadn’t even known his name, much less how to pronounce it (T-bow). Shame on me for never bothering to find out.

     I read his obituaries and learned about his long and productive life. Still working and in his studio every day even at the age of 101, he was gone too soon I felt, before I had a chance to really get to know him. I was sad. But then, as if by some sort of timeless artistic magic, there suddenly appeared an exhibition of his work right here at our own McNay Art Museum in San Antonio: “Wayne Theibaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings.” Organized by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento (Theibaud’s home city) in honor of the artist’s 100th birthday, this traveling exhibit is about as up close and personal as you could get to the artist, given how humble and unassuming he was, and given that it features many of his best-known works. The show at the McNay has been beautifully staged (see the stylized entry above) and designed to “…evoke reflection on our own experience with the people, places, and foods we love.” (McNay curator René Barilleux’s introductory statement) 

     After attending this exhibit last week, I came home enriched by new knowledge and inspired by new ideas. I was even motivated to take a three-hour ZOOM class on fabric painting! And now I am ready to begin my new little project. Forget macaroons. In homage to Wayne Theibaud, I’m going to depict the the foods I love from my childhood, the foods that evoke memories of shared afternoon delights with those I loved: treats plain and simple on a blue checkered cloth from the DQ (Dairy Queen.)  No, I won’t copy Theibaud, but I will pay attention to his aesthetic preoccupations with light, space, and color. 

     Ideas for my next project(s) always make me smile before I even begin, which is how I will get through what may prove to be another difficult year ahead. Meanwhile, that promise to practice an “attitude of gratitude” by writing my Christmas thank-you notes, which ended my last post of 2021, is sure to get completed now that I have those Theibaud notecards from Pomegranate to write them on.  That, in itself, is a winter’s afternoon delight!

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   Okay, so the gifts are put away and the wrappings are disposed of, the leftovers have been eaten and the china has returned to the sideboard, the holiday phone calls have been made, the “Year in Review” has been written in the Christmas Memories book, the dates and appointments for 2022 have been entered on the new wall calendar, and the big tin of sugar cookies is all but empty. We are now in that period of interlude between Christmas and New Year’s, and all I’m feeling is the urge for a “long winter’s nap.”

     It happens every year, this listless week between one big holiday and the next. Work schedules are amended, normal routines are out of whack, and no one is even sure what day of the week it is. (Sounds like the years we’ve spent in Covid.)  This year, if you’re visiting friends you find yourself in someone else’s house with uncertain expectations and even less to do than if you were home; if you’re returning home from those visits, then you’re likely spending this week in a long winter’s nightmare rather than in a long winter’s nap — unless, of course, you’re sleeping in an airport. 

     Some people call this awkward time period “Betwixtmas” and blame the general ennui on the ever-expanding Christmas Creep of zealous merchandizing that seems to start counting down “shopping days ‘till” earlier and earlier each year. By the time the Big Day actually arrives, we’re all completely spent, both financially and emotionally. This holiday season, what with Americans’ absolutely defiant determination to have a “normal” Christmas, supply chain issues, extreme labor shortages, and ever-mounting Covid threats be damned, the pre-season shopping FOMO (fear of missing out) was worse than anyone ever thought possible. Holiday decorations were on display before Halloween here where I live, and Christmas trees, both real and artificial, were mostly gone by the first week in December.

      There are cultural traditions that can help weather the discomfort of this in-between period. For example, the British have Boxing Day on December 26, which has nothing to do with boxing, but which honors a practice begun under Queen Victoria in the 1800s. On Christmas Day, boxes were placed in the churches into which the wealthy could contribute gifts and money to be distributed to the poor the next day. Hence, “boxing day.” These days, Boxing Day is celebrated mostly with sports in the UK — rugby, cricket matches, horse races, and most of all, the sport of fox hunting.  Americans’ generosity of toys, gifts, and money to the less- fortunate during the Christmas season, as well as our enthusiasm for celebrating Bowl games and play-offs at this time of year, might be indirect interpretations of  the British Boxing Day.

     Catholics and Christians everywhere honor the Twelve Days of Christmas leading up to the feast of the Epiphany on January 6, also known as the Feast of the Three Kings. Various Christian cultures have different ways of celebrating this feast day, but Spanish cultures honor the Three Kings with a Rosca de Reyes or Three Kings Cake. It is round, shaped like a crown, with a small porcelain figure of the Baby Jesus buried inside. Whoever gets this slice of the cake must then provide the next celebration for everyone on Candlemas Day, February 2. No doubt you recognize the direct legacy of this tradition in the famous King Cake associated with Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

     And then there is Kwanza, which is a distinctly American celebration of African history and heritage held at exactly this time of year, from December 26 to January 1. Created in 1966 in the aftermath of the Watts riots by Black Power figure Maulana Karenga, the seven days of Kwanza honor the seven principles of African heritage. They are invoked with decorations of African art, traditional dress, music and dance, and communal meals, all intended to offer respect and gratitude to ancestors. Although originally envisioned as a cultural rather than a religious occasion, many African-American families today celebrate Kwanza along with Christmas and New Year’s. 

     Search as I might through all these different traditions, however, I am unable to find an antidote to my current restlessness and latent feelings of dread about the year ahead. If you’ll recall, in early December  I was, if not exactly hopeful, at least motivated to resurrect some of our own Christmas traditions and to take responsibility for my own holiday happiness (see “Making A List…” posted Dec.12). I did manage to address every preparation on that list, including touching base with all my far-away friends, mustering my anti-Covid courage to attend Christmas Eve Mass down at the Cathedral, and practicing the piano for my Christmas Day concert (awful though it turned out to be). But the legacy of holiday joy from my Mother has waned more than a bit, and now I’m just tired, and tired of.  What a difference three weeks makes, especially during the course of a pandemic.

     The Norwegians have a word specifically for the days between Christmas and New Year:  Romjul. Literally translated, it means “yule space,” a period of extra time with no expectations, not for anything nor of anyone. That concept suits me well right now and seems to be a reasonable attitude to adopt going forward. After all, who knows what the New Year will bring?

     Meanwhile, let me finish this year with an attitude of gratitude by writing some Christmas thank-you notes.

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Making A List …

  I’ve always been an avid list-maker, but “avid” is hardly the word for it this year— more like compulsive. Perhaps that’s because I’ve suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to revive some of our old Christmas traditions, most of which we haven’t enjoyed since my Mother was last here to supervise and to enjoy them with us. She was debilitated with a series of strokes in 2017 and then passed away right after Thanksgiving the following year. My spirit for the holiday season sort of passed with her, and Covid finished it off. 

     To say that Christmas was my Mother’s most favorite holiday is an extreme understatement. She was the ultimate Christmas Elf. She started planning for the next Christmas on December 26, hitting the sales to buy greeting cards at half price (something I still do) and looking for after-Christmas bargains for those who were always on her gift list the following year. By Halloween, she was wrapping presents; by Thanksgiving, she was addressing cards; by December 1, her tree was up, her house was decorated, and she was shipping boxes of gifts up East to us in advance of her usual holiday visit. By mid-December, she had organized a “tamalada” with her friends and made several dozen tamales to bring with her in her carry-on on the flight to New York (prompting other passengers to ask about the smell and other Texans on the plane to express a wistful jealousy). She had also made her famous chocolate fudge (to bring up) and sometimes, at my special request, even carried Texas barbecue and smoked sausage. It’s a wonder the entire flight of passengers didn’t erupt in a revolt of feeding frenzy!

     Before she retired, my Mother was a personnel manager at J. C. Penney’s, but through all those years she still maintained that indomitable Christmas spirit. She loved going to work with the store all decorated and meeting the excitement of all the shoppers, even though for her the holidays in retail meant long hours,  staffing headaches, and mediating customer complaints. When I was in high school, she let me and my best friend Judy work in gift wrap. That gave me a crash course in dealing with unruly, unreasonable customers (though my Mother was not sympathetic, since “The customer is always right” was the official Penney motto). To this day, however, I attribute my expert gift wrapping techniques, if not my lack of patience with unruly people, to that that early retail experience. 

     So, back to the present, to the list I’ve made in order to resurrect some of our old Christmas traditions. You can follow along if you’re interested (and I will post recipes and directions if you wish):

  • get the tree up (assemble the artificial one, new this year)     check
  • string lights outside on the fence and make new red bows    check
  • hang the big wreaths over the garage and front door check
  • put bows on the front grills of the cars                                     check
  • take useful, pretty decorations to Goodwill early                     check
  • decorate all rooms inside and cull decorations as we go  check
  • write Christmas letter for greeting cards                                check
  • hand-write and send out all greeting cards (130 or so)          almost
  • find recipes and shop for all baking ingredients                    check
  • make the fudge                                                                       check
  • make the biscotti                                                                    check
  • make the sugar cookies                                                          in progress
  • make the black/white cookies                                                in progress
  • make reservations for our Christmas Eve dinner                   check
  • order/send far-away gifts                                                        check
  • wrap gifts in house                                                                  in progress
  • dig out Christmas china and serving plates                            check
  • practice the piano for the Christmas Eve carols                     not yet
  • plan an outfit for Christmas Eve Mass/dinner                        on order
  • order the prime rib for Christmas Day                                    not yet
  • call close friends far away for an overdue conversation  in progress
  • clean up the whole house and make it sparkle                       check

If this list makes you tired, imagine how I feel. But I promise you, I will feel a whole lot better when it is complete. 

     I think this compulsion to recreate our Christmases past comes not from, frankly, an optimism about the future or a hope for the end of Covid or the resolution of the rancor of politics in the nation, but from a deep sense of gratitude for the years, and holidays, that I have enjoyed in my life. I have a legacy of joy from my Mother and a determination not to allow the state of the world to reduce my expectations for my own happiness in the years, and the Christmases, I have left. 

     So I’ve made my list and I don’t need to check it twice. It’s good. And I’m good to go. I hope you are too. Merry Christmas!

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Comfort and Joy

As we come to the end of another difficult year and the beginning of another holiday season, we look for reasons to be grateful and, dare I say it —even reasons to be hopeful for the year ahead. No, the pandemic isn’t over, though some act with such bravado that you’d think it never really happened (and they probably do). But there is a fresh-start feeling in the air, a renewed, if cautious sense of optimism and hope. If we have learned anything from two years of this pandemic, it is to embrace the fleeting moments of joy we may experience every day and to take comfort in our simple blessings, even as they may be hard to count during times of hardship. 

     Buoyed as I was by seeing my art quilt in person in exhibition in Houston late last month (see last post, November 9), I spent this long Thanksgiving weekend determined to finish and submit my latest entry into yet another global exhibition. And I made the deadline! This piece, called “Cuisine Locale” (pictured above), has been adapted from a photograph I took in Arles, France, in 2019, the last overseas trip we took before Covid. Reliving the memories of that 50th anniversary trip to a country we love brought me happiness and, believe it or not, I found the 22 hours of hand-beading that paella to be calmingly meditative. 

     Chief among the blessings I count, of course, is that we are still here, along with our closest friends and relatives. A couple of them came to visit from out-of-state the week before Thanksgiving. Again, encouraged by a boost of confidence through limited social interaction, not to mention those third Covid shots, we were able to plan outings and activities here that involved minimal health risks and they were able to fly in non-stop (from Tampa and Seattle) without long layovers in congested airports. During that week, we mostly just sat and talked and ate and drank, but it was glorious, especially since we hadn’t been together for over two years. What a joyful way to begin this holiday season!

     While almost 800,000 Americans have died during Covid and we are still losing about 1,000 lives a day, at least the availability of vaccines has slowed the spread of infection and stemmed the tide of fear, notwithstanding the latest threat from the Omicron variant. No, vaccines haven’t provided the immediate “cure” and the immediate “return to normal” that everyone (especially politicians) anticipated earlier this year, but they have uplifted confidence in those of us who have been cautious and conservative in our pandemic responses all along. Through it all, we have learned a few things: that vaccines work, but may not last forever; that break-through cases can occur, but aren’t likely to kill you; that masks protect self and others, even from ordinary colds and flu; that personal space and social distance help deflect infection; and that practical, provable, preventative measures in a public-health crisis are NOT a matter of individual choice, but a collective responsibility to the larger society. 

     These are important lessons going forward, because it doesn’t look like Covid or its myriad mutations are likely to just go away anytime soon. In fact, many scenes of a “pre-pandemic normal” are destined to become Rockwell-like images of nostalgia on future Christmas cards, even as more of us realize that we don’t really want a return to some of those “pre-pandemic normals.”  Risk assessment, reasonable choices, common sense, simple courtesy — these are the best ways to manage life in “the new normal.” If we weren’t so bogged down in the politics and craziness of our dystopian “present normal,” maybe we could see that these attitudes offer the best ways to live under any circumstances.

     All in all, I am feeling well going into this holiday season. I will decorate and bake and wrap a few gifts; we will erect our new, first-in-our-entire-lives 9’ artificial tree (and get our no-longer-needed decorations over to Goodwill in time for someone else to enjoy); and I will write those Christmas cards and letters, even though I haven’t much exciting news to report this year (and even though they may not arrive until after the New Year). Our Christmas will be quiet, spent with what I have come to call our little “social triangle” (my husband, our son and me), but a three-legged stool still stands, and I am grateful for that.

     Comfort and joy — key words of the season. And this year not just empty longings.

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A Quilt Debut

 [Above: “My Pandemic Quilt” by Laurie Ceesay Landree in Pandemic: Life in Lockdown,  a special exhibition at the Houston International Quilt Festival, 2020]

     The Houston International Quilt Festival just closed at the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown. Since Tokyo permanently suspended its quilt festival after 2020, the Houston show is now the largest in the world, as well as the largest in the US. Founded in 1975 by Karey Bresenhan, President and CEO of Quilts, Inc., it draws over 55,000 visitors during its five-day run in late October. “Quilt International,” as it is affectionately called, is nothing short of a fabric extravaganza beckoning bus loads, plane loads, and car loads of quilting pilgrims, artists, collectors, instructors, and vendors from around the Country and all over the world. They come to see, to learn, to shop and to exhibit their work with pride.

      A quilt is generally defined as a three-layer fabric sandwich of any size, shape or pattern, sewn by hand or machine. While quilts have traditionally been made for utilitarian purposes, they have evolved under the hands of talented, creative seamstresses (nearly always women) into prized works of artistic beauty and historical record, such as the famous Amish quilts made by Amish and Mennonite women around Lancaster, PA, or the Gee’s Bend quilts which are still a handwork tradition today in the African-American community of Gee’s Bend, AL.

     Over time, especially in America, as the art of quilting gained interest, so too did the purposes for which they are made. There are records of quilts being used for messaging, hanging on fences to lead the way for fleeing slaves on the underground railroad, for example, or quilts with subtle signs alerting hobos as to which households were welcoming or hostile as they traveled the rails and asked for a handout during  the Great Depression. In the last 50 years or so, we’ve seen the rise of socio-political messaging, in the form of the famous AIDS Memorial Quilt, or the commemorative 9/11 quilts, or the more-recent protest quilts that address racism and gun violence. Such work expands the very definition of a quilt in the public mind and moves it from bed cover to wall art to be displayed, discussed, collected and prized.

     Most of us quilters began by making traditional bed quilts with traditional patterns, thereby learning the basic techniques of designing, piecing and machine quilting. We took classes, built our fabric stashes, acquired specialized tools, joined local guilds, and entered area quilt shows hoping to be awarded a ribbon — if not a blue one, at least an honorable mention (which is what my first quilt garnered). Then, in the 1990’s, a new movement captured our imaginations: the art quilt. For me, who had already decided that I was “a quilter who didn’t quilt” (because I didn’t own a longarm machine and so sent all my big quilts out to professionals to be quilted for me), the introduction to the art quilt came through a class at my local quilt shop on how to translate photographs into fabric art. My very first “art quilt” was from my own photo of the covered bridge in Cornwall, CT.

     In 1989, California quilt artist Yvonne Porcella launched a new organization, the Studio Art Quilt Associates, Inc., whose mission was to promote the art quilt as a fine art medium. SAQA defines an art quilt as “a creative visual work that is layered and stitched or that references this form of stitched layered structure.” Now, over the last 30 years, it has grown into an active community of over 4,000 artists, curators, collectors, and art professionals around the world. Today, SAQA hosts major regional, national, and international juried exhibitions in galleries and cultural centers worldwide, provides publicity and promotion of the art quilt through its various publications, and serves as a resource for quilt artists as well as curators, dealers, consultants, teachers and collectors.  Largely due to the promotional efforts of SAQA, art quilts are commissioned to hang in corporate headquarters and public spaces; they even — gasp! — hang in museums as part of permanent collections. As I have mentioned here before, I am a member of SAQA and proud to have had several of my art quilts accepted into SAQA exhibitions. 

     In the world of fiber arts today, there are traditional quilt displays, specialized exhibitions and juried shows, fabric art spin-offs of wearable art, and even 3-D creations. And then there is Houston Quilt International, where you will find it all in one gigantic place. The 2020 Houston show was cancelled due to Covid, but this year’s show went on as planned albeit under obviously reduced circumstances and with strict Covid protocols (mask mandates for everyone and enhanced sanitary conditions at the Convention Center). Even without the large numbers of international participants, there were still some 1200 quilts and pieces of textile art on display, including 29 special exhibitions, 500 vendor booths and 260 classes all spread over three full floors of the Convention Center. 

     As you may have inferred by now, the Houston International show is a big deal among quilt enthusiasts, so I was thrilled this summer to hear that one of my works, “Look to the Light,” had been juried into a special exhibit there called Tactile Architecture.™  (This is the quilt I spent most of last year working on and which I featured in this blog post on Nov. 25, 2020.) There were only 16 works displayed in this exhibit and I was told that it was quite an honor to have been accepted because of a record number of submissions. I guess everyone else had spent those long Covid months at home making art just as I had.

     Anyway, leave it to the woman who has barely gone out of her house in almost two years to decide to make her debut back into the world at a potential super-spreader event — and I don’t even ride a motorcycle! Now I’m not going to be cavalier about how I made this decision because it was not without fear and anxiety, even up to the very last minute. Beyond the fact that I had already laid out the non-refundable fees for the show and hotel back in June, I still kept a wary eye on Covid case numbers and still fretted over the risks of attending up until the last minute. In the end, though, I decided that seeing my work displayed in Houston at Quilt International was worth the risk — one does have to sacrifice for art after all!  But more importantly, this was the motivation I needed to push myself toward some sort of normalcy.

     I am under no illusion that Covid is over and gone, but I have come to accept that we all must find reasonable ways to accommodate a recurring threat while reclaiming some of our lives. I have been vaccinated (with three shots, actually), I wear a mask everywhere all the time, I wash my hands incessantly, regularly disinfect my house, and am not in the habit of attending motorcycle rallies or events like them. 

     Yes, Houston was crowded, because it is a big city and the Astros were playing in the World Series, but thankfully, Quilt International was less crowded than I remember it being before the pandemic.  You could actually see the exhibited quilts without crushing crowds, linger over them, photograph them, even chat with the artist if present. And the work seemed exceptionally stunning, inspiring and original, such as the Landree quilt pictured above, which is no doubt destined to become part of the record of our times. 

     I am so glad I made the trip to Houston, and feel so much more hopeful and more confident about moving forward now. How odd that an art work that sustained and comforted me through the long months of being shut in last year ultimately pushed me out of my comfort zone and back into my life this year. We both made our quilt debut in Houston together!

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The Tales of Mr. Poe

     I am in possession of a 1938 Modern Library edition of The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Random House, Inc.). It belonged to my Mother. Along with Charles Dickens, Poe was one of her most favorite authors — 19th century writers being universal favorites of people who grew up and were schooled in the early half of the 20th century. It’s odd, in a way, that she, who was so very optimistic and upbeat and positive about life, would nevertheless love authors who largely concentrated on the bleak and the macabre. But then, she was a true romantic in every sense of the word, including literary genres.

     Anyway, because of my Mother, my association with Mr. Poe goes way back, even before I studied his work in English class or spent Saturday afternoons in the movie theatre watching 1960’s Hollywood renditions of his scariest short stories with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Borris Karloff: The Pit and the Pendulum, House of Usher, Masque of the Red Death, and a cinematic version of Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven. I had read many of these tales before, of course, in her Modern Library edition, so was already something of a Poe critic long before I ever got degrees in American literature.

     During his unfortunately short life (he died at 40), Poe was prolific. He wrote 73 short stories (not all of them macabre), over 50 poems (not all of them dark and grieving), and several rather acclaimed pieces of literary criticism. But yes, he was a “tortured soul,” and that shows in his work overall. He married his cousin Virginia (who was 13 at the time) and they were together only 11 years before she died.The great love of his life, she is immortalized in his most famous grief poems, “Annabel Lee,” “Lenore,” “Ulalume,” and “The Raven.” They are all mournfully melodic, with interior rhymes and durge-like rhythms, and they are beautiful (and I am not a romantic). I delivered these poems repeatedly in oral interpretation of poetry competitions in my undergrad days, successfully, I might add. (It wasn’t hard if you could ignore the sing-song impulses and emphasize the narrative thread.)

     “The Raven” was first published in 1845 in the New York Evening Mirror and, though Poe was already a working writer and an editor, this poem brought him instant success among mainstream readers. The story of a profound sorrow that won’t leave struck a popular nerve, and it was subsequently published in slightly different versions in numerous papers around the Country. (Visit the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore’s website, for the various versions of the poem and other author information.) “The Raven” is a long poem, being 18 stanzas of six lines each, which precludes my reprinting it here, but when you read it, you will no doubt recognize several oft-quoted lines and phrases. 

     Good writing and great literature does endure, even when it is sentimental and clearly a product of its time. “The Raven” is a perfect example. The nevermore refrain has come to represent, at least among modern readers, more than just Poe’s loss of his wife, but the loss of everything that cannot be recaptured: our lost loves, our lost youth, our lost innocence, our lost faith. That, I think, is at the core of its continuing appeal — perhaps especially now. The appearance of a  raven was, of course, a sign of death and impending doom since ancient times, which explains the ubiquity of the avian image today at Halloween.

     Poe’s short stories also endure, particularly at Halloween, and he is rightfully considered a master of Gothic horror. In reality, though, only about a third of his stories truly fit the horror classification. He is also considered a master of detective fiction, psychological thrillers, and even some science fiction, and he also wrote satire and even humor. Many of his best-known short stories were inspired by sensational accounts of unsolved mysteries and horrific murders that he read about in newspapers. Some even found their inspiration in historic events, such as The Pit and the Pendulum (about torture in the Spanish Inquisition) and Masque of the Red Death (about the cholera epidemic). 

     In a way, Poe’s life itself became a sad, melancholy tale. Always troubled with psychological problems, with drugs and alcohol and then the loss of his great love, he died of “mysterious circumstances” in October of 1849. He is buried at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. For over fifty years, an unknown visitor came each year and left three roses and a bottle of French cognac at his gravesite. No one is entirely sure of the symbolism of those mementoes, but Poe’s tombstone aptly reads: “Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.”

     And the Baltimore Ravens bear the name of Poe’s most famous poem.