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Spring Cleaning

    Spring has come in fits n’ starts this year, as have I. Yes, the bluebonnets are up and I have bouquets of them on my table, though they are already fading here in South Texas and have yet to fully burst forth in the Hill Country. Temperatures all last week have been in the 40s – 50s at night, and maybe 70 during the day, but yesterday we hit 90. Such are the vagaries of  Texas weather. Pollen is the one sure thing that is blossoming big time, however, and I have the sneezes and watery eyes to prove it.

     While allergies may make some people miserable, most folks still eagerly await the warmth and sunshine of spring and welcome it as a time to refresh and renew, to clean up, clear out and begin again. This is especially true in areas where long winters of six months or more breed a serious case of cabin fever.  As an astronomical season, spring is based the natural rotations of the earth around the sun with two solstices and two equinoxes. Yet, while people have used natural phenomena as markers of time for thousands of years, the vernal equinox associated with the beginning of spring in the Northern hemisphere (around March 21) doesn’t necessarily coincide with spring-like weather.

     The origin of “spring” as a meteorological, and therefore metaphoric, season is easier to understand but harder to pinpoint, based as it is on climate and temperature cycles. In Western Europe where the Catholic Church held sway for centuries, spring was originally called Lent to indicate the days leading up to Easter Sunday. Sometime in the Middle Ages, the period began to be called “springing time,” because of all the plants and flowers “springing up” from the ground. A while later, the season became known as “spring time,” and then, finally, just “spring.”

     It’s interesting to note now how many cultures in the world, regardless of their religious beliefs or geographic locations, celebrate a “spring-like” season of rebirth with cleansing rituals and traditions. One of them, the custom of “spring cleaning,” can be traced back to ancient Jewish practices of thoroughly cleaning the house in anticipation of Passover (itself a forerunner of Lent). Similar traditions are found in the Iranian Nowruz, the Persian new year, which falls on the first day of spring. The practice of khooneh tekouni, which literally means “shaking the house,” is still honored today. In some cultures, “spring” cleaning and the urge to refresh and renew comes at the end of the year, which could actually be in winter or summer, depending on their calendar. 

     I have been particularly ruthless about clearing out and cleaning up this year. Part of that impulse, of course, has been occasioned by the cartons of papers and documents, family photos and records, and personal possessions and keepsakes of my Mother’s that now are deposited in a guest room, in a closet and in the garage. Not only am I still trying to wrap up her affairs, I am now trying to distribute, dispense, and dispose of the leftovers of her life, much of which I personally value, but simply don’t know how to accommodate. 

     Integration of belongings from one generation to the next is a tedious process, and a sad one.  As I go along trying to marry some of her things (photos, knick-knacks, special treasures, pieces of furniture) with my own, I inevitably find myself overwhelmed and irritated with the clutter I myself have accumulated. I open drawers and things fall out; I go to shelves and have no room left; I look in closets and am met with chaos. Thus, a cleaning frenzy ensues — one not entirely due to the season, nor one entirely based on hope for the future. Not only am I feeling  encumbered by all my own “stuff” right now, but I am also facing the future reality that our one bachelor son doesn’t want to be encumbered by it either. 

     In 1986, comedian and social critic George Carlin did a routine about “stuff” that still resonates with me. It was masterful, as so much of his very original work was, because it satirized Americans’ lust for big money and high style, which so dominated the 1980s,  through the simple, immediately familiar descriptions of our own everyday relationships with our own everyday “stuff.” As Carlin made plain, you didn’t have to be one of the Carringtons on Dynasty to be guilty of conspicuous consumption: You buy a house to “have a place for your stuff.”  Pretty soon you need another, bigger place to “keep your stuff while you go out to get more stuff.” Then a whole storage and security industry develops based on a need for “keeping an eye on your stuff.” Ironically, Carlin performed this routine for Comic Relief in a charity event to combat poverty. (Find it on You Tube.)

     Tomorrow my community is having a giant disposal day, with shredders for papers and documents, bins for outdated prescriptions and medications, and dumpsters for unusable appliances, furniture and other household items that regular garbage collection won’t take. That bachelor son of ours is coming over with his big pick-up truck to help us haul our “stuff” over to the drop off site. This isn’t everything that I need to get rid of, but it’s a start. 

     Fits n’starts — that’s what this year’s spring, and spring cleaning, is all about.

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Ash Wednesday

      The season of Lent is upon us and with it the rituals of repentance: fasting, abstinence, and acts of self-denial; ashes, palms, and Stations of the Cross; mournful music, daily devotionals, and confession of sins. The First Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) established the 40 days of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday as a period of fasting and sacrifice in preparation for Easter.  While specific rites and rituals may differ among Christian denominations, some form of Lenten practice is traditionally observed not only by the Roman Catholic Church, but also by Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and some Baptist churches. Any particular “sackcloth and ashes” practices of Lent have been created by churchmen and have no specific foundations in Scripture, though a biblical basis for fasting and the denial of worldly temptations is usually attributed to the gospel accounts of the 40 days and 40 nights Jesus spent in the desert in spiritual preparation for his public life and ultimate sacrifice.

     The desert as a landscape of a parched spirit is a recurring metaphor in both the Old and the New Testaments.  Paradoxically, it becomes both a place of threatening isolation and death, and a place of spiritual encounter and renewal: Abraham casts Hagar and her son, Ishmael, out into the desert; Moses spends 40 years in the desert before returning to Egypt to free his people, and then spends another 40 wandering there with the Israelites; the people of Judah are exiled from Babylon, only to be called back by God and ordered to return through the wasteland from which they’d come; Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus and flee into the desert to avoid Herod’s wrath; Jesus grows up in the small town of Nazareth, literally in the middle of the desert; John the Baptist preaches and converts in the desert, and baptizes Jesus there. The references and subtleties that underlie all these narratives are made stronger and more meaningful by virtue of their settings; the stories and images taken together are perfectly suited to the mood and the meaning of Lent.

     The writer in me wants to believe that this well-developed biblical metaphor was no accident for the early authors of Scripture, even though they wrote at different times over many different years. Yes, it’s true that almost all of the Holy Land where these stories take place is, in fact, a desert wilderness.  If you’ve been to the Sahara, the Sinai, the  Wadi Rum or the Arabian Desert and seen the vast expanses of nothingness there today, then you have not only seen, but no doubt experienced for yourself the sudden, very real loneliness and desolation such a landscape invites. Even a “garden” in a populated city, such as the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem (photo above), is a dry and arid place, a perfect setting for Christ’s final agony of spirit. 

     Not surprisingly, as both a traditional Catholic and a writer, I don’t believe in the “literal translation” of the Bible, but I do believe in the enduring truth of its overall message: “A voice cries out in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord!” (Isaiah 40:1-3)  Life is a journey and we are all wandering, sometimes aimlessly, toward something, somewhere, someone. Lent is a time of transition, a time to find the way forward out of whatever spiritual desert we may have wandered into toward a renewed promise of hope. We want to believe that our eternal spring is coming, and we want to be ready when it does, but faith falters and sometimes we have only the habits and rituals of that faith to keep us tethered. We are, after all, only human:

                  Although I do not hope to turn again 

                  Although I do not hope

                   Although I do not hope to turn

      Wavering between the profit and the loss

                    In this brief transit where the dreams cross

                    The dream-crossed twilight between birth and dying

                                                                                       Ash Wednesday, T.S. Eliot                                                        

         I was introduced to the work of T.S. Eliot in 10th grade in Catholic school by a gifted, demanding English teacher named Sr. Gabriel. To be sure, it was quite an undertaking with a bunch of 14 year olds, but as I later discovered myself while teaching high school, precocious teenagers who think they know everything love nothing better than the chance to prove it by ferreting out obscure references and abstract symbols. At any rate, I have been reading Eliot’s work, studying it and teaching it, and loving it, ever since.  Many of his best-known poems, including The Waste Land and The Hollow Men, have to do with the emptiness of existence without hope, without faith. For me, they make perfect Lenten “literary” meditations.

     Ash Wednesday, often called his “conversion poem” because it was written after Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, is about the difficulty of religious belief in an age of uncertainty — uniquely relevant today.  But, is the fervent hope for salvation and life everlasting the same as a fervent belief in it? I don’t think so. The poetic persona through the five movements of the poem moves from utter despair through confusion and exhaustion to some final resolution of acceptance. Whether or not that acceptance is a true “conversion” or simply a form of surrender seems debatable. The opening lines of the last stanza of the final movement, to my mind some of the most beautiful and most sensible words to live by, may hint at a new beginning, but not necessarily one grounded in the fullness of faith:

                   Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood

                   Teach us to care and not to care

                   Teach us to sit still

    The personal struggle for spiritual wholeness is not easy to describe or comprehend. Nor is the the work of T.S. Eliot. One of his often-quoted maxims might appropriately be applied to both: “…genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”  Amen.

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At Downton Abbey

      I just returned from seeing my old friends, Lord and Lady Grantham. They, along with members of the Crawley family and most of their household staff, are “touring” in America. Of course, they brought the accouterments of their lovely country home in England with them. Quite a transatlantic undertaking, to be sure. I had spent six seasons with them since 2011, and have terribly missed seeing them these last couple years, so I was delighted to be able to enjoy their company and their way of life once again.

     I am, of course, talking about Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, which is now touring the United States after opening in New York City to rave reviews last year. Currently, The Exhibition is on display in West Palm Beach, Florida, in a huge space (once a Macy’s department store) downtown at CityPlace. The Downton Abbey series , created and written by Julian Fellowes, ran on PBS for six years, garnered 15 Emmys, and by any measure became the most successful British television costume drama since the 1981 series of Brideshead Revisited (based on Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel). Downton’s international appeal fostered a fiercely-devoted, worldwide fan base that has now spawned a whole Downton franchise of products and publications; the Exhibition serves to keep that fan base and franchise alive, as well as providing exciting pre-publicity for the Downton Abbey full-length feature film to open in September.

     Hey, it all works for me! In case you missed it — if unfortunately you fell into a coma or lived off the grid somewhere — Downton Abbey was an original six-year long series that followed the lives of the Crawley family, headed by Robert, the 7th Earl of Grantham, and his American-born heiress wife, Clara, the Countess of Grantham. Through roughly 12 years of historic change and social upheaval in post-Edwardian England, these aristocrats struggle to maintain not only the Downton Abbey estate and the way of life within, but also to supply employment and meet their obligations to the villagers who live on that estate. For the most part, they have managed to do that through the considerable dowry Clara brought to her marriage, but the rise in socialism, the increase in taxation, and the changing technology of farming and trade brought sudden and significant challenges to the influence and power, and to the finances, of the ruling class (which is why so many of the well-born were willing to exchange their titles for money in marriage to the daughters of self-made American millionaires). 

     To further complicate the situation at Downton, Lord Grantham has three daughters, but no sons. Only a son had the right of inheritance to an estate and a title.  For the 7th Earl of Grantham, whose property had been in his family for 500 years, the single most important goal in his life was to preserve his legacy and pass it on to future generations. That goal was shared by ALL the families at Downton, by the way, both the blood-related Crawleys upstairs and the work-related service staff downstairs.  In point of fact, between the two World Wars, aristocratic land owners became increasingly unable to achieve that goal, so their estates were broken up and their assets sold off for the first time in centuries. That spelled disaster and displacement for everyone concerned. According to The Exhibition catalogue, “Between 1913 and 1939 more of England changed hands than at any time since the Reformation in the 16th century.” (p.33)

     Evidence of such reduced circumstances endure today, even in Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey was filmed. The 5,000 acre estate has been home to the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679, including the famous 5th Earl of Carnarvon who accompanied archeologist Howard Carter in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. But, by the 21st century, Highclere had become largely uninhabitable forcing the current 8th Earl and his family to live in a modest cottage on the grounds. Ceilings had collapsed, stonework had crumbled, and repair estimates soared at £12 million — a state of affairs that the 8th Earl himself attributed to the careless mismanagement by his ancestors.

     But then Highclere was discovered! Along came film crews, along came paying visitors, and along came a change in fortune that the current Countess of Highclere gratefully attributes to the on-site filming of Downton Abbey. Today, much of Highclere has been renovated and repaired, the family once again lives downstairs in the castle, and the estate is open to the public for visits and special events during the summer months. 

     And it was this state of affairs that actually made the fabulous Downton Exhibition possible, because while all the outdoor scenes were shot on location at Highclere, the everyday scenes of daily drama were difficult to film inside due to tight spaces, poorly maintained interiors, and the priceless arts and antiques that could be damaged. So, room sets, precise and authentic down to every detail, were recreated at Ealing Studios in London. It is these sets that have travelled and been reassembled for The Exhibition, and they are incredible: the servants’ quarters, Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, Carson’s pantry, Mrs. Hughes’ sitting room, Lady Mary’s bedroom, and the truly magnificent formal dining room, complete with table setting and dried floral arrangements (photo above).

     And then there are the costumes, exquisite in detail and workmanship, authentic in fabrication and embellishment, and made specifically for the actors who would wear them. Being a seamstress, I was as mesmerized by the construction of the attire of the butler, footmen and maids as I was by the wedding gowns, day dresses and “hunting pinks” of the aristocracy; being a student of history, I was enthralled by the clear evolution of style that indicated changing times. 

     Most of all, though, Downton Abbey: The Exhibition brought me back to those Sunday nights of romance and relief when I could escape into a bygone world of elegance and etiquette and forget, at least for an hour or so, my own worries and the tensions and divisions erupting in the world around me. And, as I think about it, we here in the early part of the 21st century are very much in the same state of upheaval and transition as the Crawleys were in the early part of the 20th century. The only difference is that we can no longer rely on common rules of manners and civility to keep our behaviors in check. 

     “Why do the rituals, the clothes, and the customs matter so much?” Tom Branson, the Irish chauffeur who ultimately marries the Earl’s daughter, Sybil, asks Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) at one point.

     “Because without them we would be like the Wild Men of Borneo,” she replies.

     And so we are.

     Note: Reference P.T. Barnum for the “Wild Men of Borneo.”

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To All the Friends I’ve Loved Before

     The New York Times recently featured a full page ad announcing the summer schedule of concerts and performances for Tanglewood 2019.  Located in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts near Lenox, Tanglewood is the summer home of the Boston Symphony. It is also one of the premier music festivals in the Country, and in the world. Since 1937 Tanglewood has offered audiences a mix of symphonic, chamber, choral, jazz, and popular music at a reasonable price in a beautiful setting (you can attend “on the lawn” or “in the shed”). This year’s line-up includes cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Renée Fleming, the James Taylor band, and of course, the Boston Pops.

     Just reading about it brought me memories of my dear, departed friend Harriet, who so loved music and theatre and film — all the arts, really. She also loved the Berkshires, in winter as well as summer, and often rented cabins there for a rejuvenating “Thoreau experience” in the woods. I gathered this was an updated, more sophisticated re-enactment of those Grossinger vacations in the Catskills from her own childhood, though when she first started talking about the Borscht Belt and the Berkshires, I hadn’t a clue where or what any of this was.  

     Harriet and I met in the late 1970s when we were both substitute teachers in Connecticut. She was returning to the classroom after a “twenty-year maternity leave,” as she was fond of saying, and I was hoping to get a teaching position in Stamford where I had just moved. Even with multiple assignments among different schools, we encountered each other regularly enough to become fast friends, especially once we discovered that we lived within walking distance of each other in the same neighborhood! Within six months, we had both gotten positions as English teachers in the same high school; within the year, we were already BFFs, working together every day and talking on the phone every night. Our husbands and families became friends. They came to our house for Christmas dinner and we went to their’s for Passover Seder. Ours was an unexpected, but remarkably loving and abiding friendship, and it remained so even after Harriet retired to Florida. “Who would think,” she’d always comment, shaking her head full of curls, “that a little Jewish girl from Brooklyn and a little blond Texas cheerleader would find themselves as soul sisters?”

     Actually, I would have. Harriet was just enough older than I to have grown up in the 1950s when conformity and homogeneity were valued and religious and racial discrimination was commonplace. People, even members of the dominant WASP population, self-segregated into closed communities based on where they lived or worked or worshipped; they rarely engaged socially with others outside their own immediate circles.

     I, on the other hand, came of age in the ‘60s.  As the daughter of a single working mother, AND a cheerleader, I certainly fought my share of gender stereotypes in South Texas, but there were not the same rigid ethnic and racial demarkations in Victoria as there were in big industrial cities. Ours was a farm and ranch town settled mostly by German and Czech immigrants; residents were predominantly descendants of those settlers, along with the descendants of Mexicans, who had worked the land in this area since before Texas was even a state, and African American “freedmen,” who had come (or stayed) to grow cotton after the Civil War. Everybody pretty much knew everybody else in town and knew where they had come from.

     I don’t mean to imply that I grew up in this utopia where everyone got along famously and there was no prejudice of any kind, but the segregation that existed was more social than it was racial or religious. By the time I was in high school, I already had friends, good friends, who were different from me, at least in external ways (age, gender, nationality, race, religion), if not so different in the basic lifestyle of Victoria. When new people moved into town, I was always one of the first to meet them and check them out. Even then, consciously or not, I gravitated toward the unfamiliar, toward those who could help me grow and expand my own experience. I am proud to say that several of my early young friendships still endure today.

      I have written before about how much I love my friends and how I strive to maintain those relationships over time and distance, basically “till death do us part.” Sadly, though, death has parted many far too soon. Just last month I/we lost our first early-marriage friend who got us our apartment as newlyweds in New York 50 years ago. As a matter of fact, he was supposed to have been here for New Year’s this year, but had to cancel due to an unexplained illness. And then he died. And now he, like my earliest childhood friend, my former editor and mentor, one of my closest college friends, my dearest Harriet, and so many others, will exist in memory, with a sudden presence conjured by a familiar phrase overheard, or a favorite dish served at dinner, or an unexpected phone call from a grown-up child. Such occurrences help keep my cherished friends alive and help me pay grateful tribute “to all the friends I’ve loved before” (if I may paraphrase the title of a Willie Nelson song). 

     Loss becomes more predictable as one gets older.  All the more reason, then, to write those letters, make those calls, and plan those visits with all the friends we’ve loved before and whom we still love now. Which is why I’m going to Florida this week to spend a few days with two of my best bests friends of  40 years. We too taught English together, but we are not alike, unless you count the way in which we swirl our wine in our glasses as we talk, or the way we contentedly roam a museum for hours, or the way we tease each other with inside quips and jibes. 

     But, then again, maybe those are the ways that really count.

 

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Getting Barbie® Back In the Box

For Christmas last year, when she was 94, my Mother asked for a Barbie doll — not just any one, mind you, but an “Andy Warhol” Barbie® (above). Part of Mattel’s Collector series, this doll is the second (of three) produced in collaboration with the Andy Warhol Foundation. She is dressed in a t-shirt featuring the famous Campbell’s tomato soup can, with a faux-fur coat, black leggings and white “go-go” boots. Andy and Barbie: pop art meets pop culture.

     “Now don’t take it out of the box, because this isn’t just another Barbie. It’s a collectible,” I reminded Mother as she gleefully unwrapped the gift. Of course, she knew as well as anyone else  that things are worth more as a collectible if maintained in pristine condition in the original packaging. But of course, she didn’t care. “Get these loose,” she commanded my husband as she tugged on the plastic ties that bound Barbie in the plastic clam shell. “I want her out to see her and set her up.” Who can argue with a 94 year old at Christmas?   

     My Mother had collected dolls most of her life and, once she had a daughter (me), she happily involved me in that hobby. As a girl, I had several Madame Alexanders, including the 1953 Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation robe; a whole series of Ginny dolls, with extensive wardrobe and accessories; and of course, the original 1959 Barbie®, with her blond pony tail (like mine) and blue eyes (like mine), sporting big sunglasses (like mine), wearing her black-and-white swimsuit over a shapley female body (not like mine). By the time she came along, however, I was less interested in playing with Barbie than in emulating her lifestyle.

     We kept most of these dolls, Mother’s and mine, for many, many years, finally selling them or giving them away as time went by.  As a matter of fact, I sold my perfect 1959 Barbie® for a significant amount of money to an overseas collector right before a big international Barbie convention in Hong Kong in 2009.  In 1959, her retail price was $3; today, in pristine condition, she is worth about $8,000. The most valuable, though, was a 2010 Barbie bedecked by Australian jewelry designer Stefani Canturi with a real diamond ring and a three-carat necklace featuring a rare Argyle pink diamond. She sold at auction at Christie’s for $302,500! The proceeds went to benefit breast cancer research. Barbie may not be able to physically run, but she sure can “raise” for the cure! 

     When my Mother died last fall, we had to dismantle her room and remove all personal effects from the assisted living facility.  That meant her dolls, including the Warhol Barbie, came back to my house, where I now have to decide what to do with them. I had anticipated selling the Barbie doll at some point, so had kept her packaging and the original display box replicating the Warhol studio. Since she had only been standing on a shelf and was in almost untouched condition, it was just a matter of getting her back in the box. 

     I first gave that chore to my son, an architect, who can draw, plan, construct, manipulate and otherwise wrestle any material into any form — except, evidently, a flex-jointed doll into a plastic clam shell.  Finally, claiming to have spent more time on the challenge than he had on any professional project that week, he gave up in exasperation. I told him to let it go, that I’d tackle it later myself. “Right,” he mumbled. “My Mom, the paragon of patience.”

     A few days later, stumbling again over the bag with Barbie and her loose packaging, I again asked for assistance. This time I enlisted my husband, who truly IS a paragon of patience. He set to work at the kitchen counter, with a determined expression and additional aids including pliers, twist ties and rubber bands  And he stayed at it — for quite a while. “She just doesn’t want to go back in that box,” he said, finally giving up.

       But then, why would she?  Barbie has spent 60 years getting herself “out of the box” of convention and encouraging three generations of girls to do the same thing. Pushing beyond the controversy over the idealized female form and the clichéd accusations of being the vacuous blue-eyed blond, Barbie® has survived it all to be one of Mattel’s top-grossing brands, having spawned a host of other doll friends, play stations, accessories, books, games and movies. She is available in 40 different nationalities, sold in 150 countries, produced in four body types, in seven skin tones, and with every imaginable hair color. In 2017, the first hijab-wearing Muslim Barbie appeared, to honor the American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad as part of the “Sheroes” series. In fact, in sports, medicine, the military, the professions (including architect), the arts, education, exploration (including astronauts), the performing arts, and politics (including President), Barbie has pursued, and dressed for success in, over 200 careers. And interestingly she has never married. At this point, all controversy and ridicule aside, it is safe to say that Barbie (her real name is Barbara Millicent Roberts) has established herself as more than a toy doll: she is an icon, and industry leader, and an American institution.  

     In light of all these accomplishments, the irony of “getting Barbie back in the box” was not lost on me as I sat down at the kitchen counter and took my turn at trying to repackage her. Women are good at repositioning themselves, I realized, and she was surprisingly malleable. I was able to ease her back into her mold, knowing that it is only one of many she temporarily inhabits, and yet another one that will no doubt be broken one day.

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Holding Patterns

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Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

      Pattern — a visible recurring design, an arrangement or a sequence, a model or example for others to follow. Patterns are everywhere, especially in nature. Just think of the wind-blown designs in sand, the symmetry of flower petals, the spirals of sea shells, or the stripes on a zebra. Patterns like these are easy to see, but some, such as those inherent in family relationships, are harder to find. We may have to search for them, but they are there. We just have to stop and look, and then try to learn from them.

     Early philosophers such as Plato and Pythagoras studied patterns in an attempt to explain the intrinsic order found in the natural world and to define the universal relationship of the parts to the whole. Down through the centuries, further explorations in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and electronic circuitry revealed geometric archetypes (fractals, triangles, spheres, etc.). Primordial patterns evoke the familiar, which in turn promotes a deeper level of intellectual and emotional understanding. Little wonder, then, that beautiful patterns find wide expression in the arts, in painting, sculpture, music, literature, and architecture. They “speak” to us aesthetically, even spiritually, regardless of who or where we are.  One doesn’t have to be Muslim, for example, to relate to the inspiring beauty of geometric tiles and floral mosaics that decorate the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi (above).

     Ive been thinking a lot about patterns lately, as I often do in periods of transition in my life. I am in just such a period now. Having lost my Mother after years of being her sole caretaker, during which I had steadily reduced other day-to-day obligations and systematically withdrawn from scheduled activities  because demands for her care increased, I now find myself in a huge void. Suddenly I have time for myself to do …what?  After being over-extended and completely responsible for someone else’s life for so long, I’m not sure I now know how to make decisions about my own life anymore. You might say I’m in an existential “holding pattern.”

     Patterns. Guides. Templates. It seems to me that I have been working within patterns my whole life, trying to identify them in my behavior, to master them in my work, to expand upon them in my art, and to help others recognize and develop their own. Conventional patterns, tested and true, introduce us to ways of doing and thinking about things, whether that means methods of speaking and behaving, designing or drawing, assembling or building.  Gaining confidence in  our ways of doing things provides a platform for further growth, a safety net of sorts, provided these patterns don’t become rigid and stultifying.   

     The first recollection I have of any conscious attention to a pattern is from early elementary school when I was painstakingly learning to write in cursive. I can still feel the sweaty grip of that #2 pencil in my hot little hand as I arduously traced the loops and curves of the alphabet, and can still summon the pride of success in forming them into words. And I still predominately write in cursive today, in my journals, in cards and letters, and in the rough first drafts of articles and essays. The persistent habit of hand writing has also helped me discover the delight of using fine papers and pens; I have quite a collection of both, but am always on the lookout for ever more exquisite additions. 

     In retrospect, I now see how that the most basic act of learning to write led to the more important intellectual studies of patterns in language and literature and, ultimately, to my  growth as a critical reader, a professional writer, and a teacher. Most of my life has been devoted to the study of words, their meanings, their nuances, their power — and that has brought me great joy and professional satisfaction. Now that I have more time to concentrate on new ideas and pursue new publication opportunities, I have to decide what’s next.

     Likewise, I started sewing at a young age, first tutored by my mother in handwork and doll clothes, and later learning machine construction through simple tissue patterns  — McCall’s, Simplicity, Butterick, and MUCH later, Vogue. Once again, I fell in love with the materials, with beautiful fabrics, smooth threads and shiny beads. I didn’t start quilting until about 15 years ago when I saw a Redwork quilt top displayed in a shop and immediately bought the Alex Anderson pattern to make it myself. Never mind that the project was way beyond my “zero quilting skills” at the time. It motivated me to take classes, to explore other patterns, and eventually, to move beyond traditional quilting and start creating and exhibiting original art quilts of my own. Now that my most recent work, “Toward Za’atari,” (see in the Gallery) was rejected from a global exhibition, however, I have to learn from my mistakes and decide on a new project and direction.

       The thing about patterns of any kind is that they are always best seen from a distance, either spatial or over time: the topography on the earth’s surface is best appreciated from an arial view, a newly-written essay is best left to steep for a while before its final edit, the elements of an art quilt are best evaluated by stepping back from the design board. Situations change, people go away, and the patterns of your life, and your life’s work, must be adjusted accordingly. Only by seeing clearly where you are and what is beyond can you possibly decide where to land. Otherwise, you remain stuck in a holding pattern.

    They say one great benefit of age is the ability to take “the long view,” to step back with  perspective and recognize what really matters and what doesn’t.  That may be true, but it’s not easy to plan how to go forward when most of your life is behind you. 

     The dreary, cold, depressing days of January seem especially suited to the task. 

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My New Year’s Resolution Is …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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