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Comfort Cookies

 Mallomars are back on grocery shelves, just in time for cooler weather and a cup of afternoon tea. The little marshmallow and graham-cracker cookies coated with dark chocolate are released every September by Nabisco. From their beginnings in New Jersey way back in 1913, they were only sold from September through March, supposedly because of the warm weather risks of melting chocolate.  Today, of course, refrigerated trucks can easily alleviate that problem, but the fall and winter “Mallomar season” is now such a time-honored tradition that it has also become a valuable marketing ploy.

     Here in South Texas where hot days (and hurricanes, evidently) pay no attention to the calendar, Mallomars usually don’t appear in local markets much before early November, and even then, warm temperatures somewhere in transit can deliver us cookies with a “chocolate bloom.” (They are fine to eat, but they just don’t have their dark and shiny appeal.) No matter where we live, those of us who came to love these comforting old-time cookies while living in the greater New York area, where 70 percent of all Mallomars are still sold today, keep a keen eye out for the appearance of those little yellow boxes, bloom or no bloom. 

     The Mallomar season is very short here in Texas. Even the largest grocers get only a limited supply of boxes and when they’re gone, they’re gone, usually in a matter of three or four weeks. This year, especially, capturing Mallomars rivals the quest for hand sanitizer and toilet paper!  People are stockpiling like never before.  I bought four boxes on my first discovery a couple weeks ago, and just went back and bought four more. I doubt there will be any left when I make a third trip.

     A box of Mallomars contains 18 cookies (at 55 calories each); serving size is two cookies, but who are we kidding?? When you wait for these treats all year long, two can be gone in a New York minute! I have actually seen eager shoppers open a box right there in the supermarket and start munching (before mandatory masks, of course). And these treats are expensive. They run $4 or more a box, which during the pandemic when no one is spending any money on anything else but groceries, seems like a negligible indulgence. But this year, in 2020, friends up East tell me that big supermarket chains such as Stop n’ Shop are offering coupons and specials on Mallomars for a mere  99 cents a box, or two boxes for $4 — thereby offering a sort of national security blanket to a country in dire need of comfort and reassurance.

     To borrow the words Queen Elizabeth once used to describe an awful year in her life (1992),  2020 has truly been an “annus horribilis” for Americans. That may be the one, and only, thing all of us can agree on, and it’s not over yet. While there may be some lights at the end of the tunnel to guide us through our most immediate problems — the coronavirus, the economy, civil unrest, a functioning government — we still have to get through the tunnel. The lights can motivate us, but dare not mislead us; there is a difference between optimism and delusion. 

     Every four years, a presidential election gives Americans the opportunity for a fresh start: if the incumbent is reelected, a second term usually comes with a reevaluation of policies and procedures and a wish list of expanded goals for an enhanced legacy; if a brand new president is elected, then there is usually an implicit promise of positive change and an offer of a “honeymoon” period of cooperation and compromise. Even when an election has been hard-fought and the electorate divided in their choices, pundits, politicos, and the general public all point to the power of the poll as proof that America works and take pride in the fact that our democracy is secure, even if our own preferred candidate didn’t win.  

    But not this year.

    Forgive me if I wasn’t “dancing in the streets” last week. I am under no illusion that once Biden is installed as president, if he ultimately is, that the whole country is going to break out in a unified chorus of “Kumbaya” and that everything is going to “return to normal.” Not so. Our divisions are so deep, our distrust so entrenched, and our fear and apprehensions about going forward are so visceral that healing, in any sense of the word, will take a very, very long time. Even with a voter turnout of 160 million people, we are so polarized through these last four years, and so crippled by that division, that there is no reason to dance, much less pat ourselves on the back for preserving democracy. We have been perilously close to losing it; we still are. As a people, we are tired of the chaos, the confusion, the conspiracy theories, the inflammatory rhetoric, and the hatred. We have all lost in this election: lost the trust, the mutual respect, the belief in our institutions, and the faith in our democracy going forward. I am, along with Donald Trump, in the early stages of grief, albeit for different reasons.

     So some of us cling, metaphorically, to our past delights, to happy little yellow boxes  of Mallomars presenting themselves at just the right time in just the right month at just the right season. Here late in 2020, we need all the comfort we can get.

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What’s Up Jack?

(Photo: “Jack,” a quilted wall hanging, 32”x40”.)

     My mother was a doll house miniaturist. Knowing how much I have always loved Halloween, she surprised me in 1993 with a fully furnished and decorated haunted house she had made for my birthday. She shipped it up in a huge box from her home in Texas to my home in Connecticut. Not only was it a big surprise, but it was all the more special because she had put her own time and talent into making it. That house has survived three moves and, though it is looking a little more dilapidated these days, it has continued to be displayed in our home every year, including this one. (See photo of it on my journal post dated Oct. 30, 2019.)

     Today is my son’s birthday and, in the tradition of my mother, I made him the quilted wall hanging shown above. His home is mid-century modern in style, orange, gray and white in color scheme, and completely devoid of tchotchkes and clutter of any kind. With that description, need I mention that he is an architect? Need I add that he is very particular about his living space? But he LOVED this art quilt — he really did — and it pleases me to share with him my art and my fondness for Halloween. (If you look closely, you can see a section of white fabric printed with architectural floor plans just above the large pumpkin.)

     I must confess that this is not my original design, but is based on a pattern named “Jack” for a collage quilt by Laura Heine (Fireworks Inc. in Billings, MT.) I adapted it to the materials I had on hand, of course, and did not follow her instructions for collage, choosing instead to do the whole thing in appliqué and free-motion quilting. I was drawn to the overall pattern because of its highly stylized interpretation of a familiar Jack o’lantern theme and was originally planning to make it for myself if I could find the time. But then my son came over one day and saw the pattern lying on the table in my sewing room and kept commenting on how different it was and how much he liked it. Since I never know what to get him for gift occasions, and since my shopping these days is pretty much limited to the grocery store, I decided to set aside the art quilt I’m currently working on and press that sewing machine pedal to the floor to get this one done by his birthday. Seeing how happy and surprised he was to find it completed and realizing that it was for him made the stress of a completion deadline worth it. 

     Working on a piece named “Jack” clearly referencing a Jack o’lantern got me to wondering where that term originated. I discovered that the name Jack has been a generic name for a man or boy, often a peasant, since the Middle Ages. It is not necessarily pejorative, and is even a preferred nickname for the more formal name of “John,” as in Jack Kennedy. In the 1700s, a jack was slang for a farthing in Britain; gradually it  began to mean a little of anything or nothing at all, such as in “You don’t know jack,” or “It don’t mean jack,” or a “Jack of all trades.” In contemporary language, a jack can be either a male donkey, a jackass (the female being a jennet), or a boorish, foolish, inappropriate man; jackass is not really a swearword, but does have strong negative connotations when directed at a particular person. 

     In the 19th century, when All Hallows’ Eve gained in mischief and superstition, country boys  used to carve turnips and other root vegetables, light them, and roam the highlands at night to spook people. The Jack o’lantern as a term is thought to have come from an Irish legend about a man called Stingy Jack, who was mean-spirited and selfish and thought he could trick the devil into not coming after him. But, when Stingy Jack died, the devil did come after him, condemning him not to hell, but to forever wandering the earth in the darkness with only an ember of hellfire to light the way.  When Irish immigrants came to America, the legend of Stingy Jack endured but the pumpkin became the vegetable of choice to carve on Halloween.

     I expect this year’s Halloween to be a rather subdued holiday, what with parties and haunted houses being discouraged and trick-or-treaters likely to be kept at home.  Even I restrained my  decorations this year. As a friend of mine remarked recently, “As if the Covid and Trump aren’t scary enough — who needs Halloween?” 

     Certainly, 2020 has been a scary year all along, made scarier still with the angst and uncertainty ahead. But it seems to me that Halloween this year holds a special metaphoric meaning, followed as it is by All Saints’ Day on November 1, All Souls’ Day on November 2, and the US elections on November 3. If, indeed, we citizens are in a battle for the very soul of America, then we’d better pray that voters recognize the power of voting and carefully consider the ramifications of their choices. Otherwise, we are all condemned to become Stingy Jacks, tricked by the devil and destined to roam into the darkness of the future with only the embers of hellfire left for light.

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An Autumn Birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Forty Days and Forty Nights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Incredible Shrinking Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Tale of Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back to School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Clearing Clutter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Clearing out my clutter is doing a good enough job.

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Say Yes …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Residence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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