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When Hell Freezes Over

Having grown up in South Texas, my experiences of catastrophic weather consist mostly of floods and hurricanes. In fact, the first major weather event I can recall from my childhood was Hurricane Carla, a category 5 storm with sustained winds of 110 mph and gusts up to 150. It made landfall on September 11, 1961, in Port Lavaca, just 20 miles down on the Gulf from where we lived in Victoria, and it raged on, with torrential rains and winds and devastating flood waters for what seemed like days. When it was all over, 500,000 people had been evacuated from Coastal areas, 34 people had died, and $300 million in damage had been tallied.

     Images of Carla have stayed with me, and often been relived, both in actuality and in my dreams. I remember going to the grocery store with my Mother to stock up on canned goods and non-perishables, matches and batteries, and being intrigued by the “storm tracker maps” they gave away (stores in Texas still do this during hurricane season). I recall how the grey clouds gradually grew heavy and began to threaten as the winds started to pick up.  And I can still see the odd lines of the faithful outside one of the old Catholic churches in town. To me, the atmosphere was exciting even if somewhat ominous.

     We lived with my Grandmother in the house where my Mother had grown up. Built in the 1920s, it was constructed on a pier-and-beam foundation with a sizable crawl space underneath (convenient for water flowing under, not into, the house). It had wide front steps leading up to a huge wrap-around front porch and a screened-in back porch off the kitchen. Supposedly, it was one of the first houses in Victoria to have electric switches on the walls and an indoor bathroom (yes, with an original claw-footed tub). There was a separate, free-standing, but leaning, single-car garage to the side. By the time Carla and I had come along, this place had already weathered many a major storm  — a fact that my Mother repeatedly emphasized over the years every time a new one erupted.

     To prepare for Carla, we put out the candles, got out the kerosene lamps, moved all the porch furniture and anything else untethered into the rickety garage, got towels and tarps together, filled bottles, buckets and the bathtub with water, and then just waited. The house was one of those back-to-front designs (seeing straight through when you entered) and, having been built before air-conditioning was even thought of, had multiple windows in every room. We always left them open because of the heat and so, of course, we didn’t board them when a storm was coming in warm weather; instead, we opened everything up to let it all blow through. That was the conventional wisdom at the time, and it did work. We moved the furniture toward the center of rooms as best we could, covered things with tarps, and settled in for the duration listening to the radio (battery powered) and tracking the storm on the hurricane map. My grandmother prayed and paced the floor, and my Mother and I ate potato chips and peanut butter sandwiches while we sat out on the back porch watching doors and auto parts and various other neighborhood debris fly by and then float in the rising waters.

     Some things never change, at least not where hurricanes in South Texas are concerned.  I have written here before about the 1998 Central Texas floods which resulted in $1.19 billion in damage and 31 people killed, a convergence of the flooding of the Colorado, Lavaca, Guadalupe, San Antonio, and San Jacinto Rivers in October of 1998. We didn’t have much of an alert, and no storm map, but the flood became a major weather event nonetheless. The rains began slowly, caused by hurricanes far away near Baja and exacerbated by a prologued drought. Then the rivers rapidly started to rise and overflow their banks. The Guadalupe River in Victoria crested at 33.8 feet above flood stage putting the entire downtown under water. I had just flown down to Texas because my Mother had had her first major stroke, and we both ended up dealing with  dual catastrophes without much preparation or understanding of either one.  

     Then, in August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey (category 4) hit. Once again, I was down in Victoria with my Mother who had had another major stroke. It was déja vu all over again. Everyone was in hurricane mode, but I was the caretaker in crisis, more concerned about her than the impending weather. Similar story: long lines at the supermarkets, people stocking up on water and beer, Victoria ending up with no electricity, no potable water and me virtually living in my car. It was a nightmare, which I still keep having. (See September 4, 2017, blog post, “Come Hell or High Water.”)

     Over the years, I have experienced multiple extreme “weather events,” as the forecasters on TV like to call them. I have been through blizzards in Connecticut, crippling snowstorms in New York and on Cape Cod, and extreme ice storms, tornadoes and even a 5.0 magnitude earthquake in Memphis (on the New Madrid fault). But Uri, as they named last week’s historic snow/ice/winter storm in San Antonio, was truly — here comes that word again — “unprecedented.” Not even hurricane-seasoned veterans like me, not to mention the Texas power grid, were prepared for this; after all, none of us were even around over a hundred years ago, the last time a winter storm of this magnitude and duration was recorded in Texas.

     There were indications in advance that we had a weather system moving in and steadily dropping daily temperatures heralded a “cold spell” not all that unusual in February, but there wasn’t anything like a major, huge storm warning. After all, snow is such an anomaly in South Texas and thermometers rarely dip below freezing for more than a day or two. Besides, this was right before Valentine’s Day weekend and everything would be closed that Monday for Presidents’ Day anyway, so nobody got too excited. Here at home, we did what we usually do when a deep frost is predicted: we covered some of our less-weather resistant plants, put a small (electric) heater into the greenhouse, and insulated outdoor faucets. So far, so good — except that it wasn’t.

     Valentine’s Day was exceptionally cold (27°) and sleet and ice advisories started to appear; predictions were that we were headed for several days of temperatures below 20. Already some of the overpasses on major roads and highways were frozen and people were advised to stay home. About 2 a.m. Monday morning the rolling power outages began. It was 11° with a steady snowfall that accumulated to about 4 inches by the end of the day. Our electricity went out altogether in mid-afternoon. We dug out some of my quilts, gathered candles and flashlights, and settled ourselves around our gas fireplace and the gas cooktop in the great room. The rest of the house had gotten down to 50° by the time the power resumed on Thursday afternoon, but then we were notified by the local water company that we had a water problem. And I promptly had a meltdown. 

     To say that last week was hell is to put it mildly, even as I admit that we were a great deal better off than many others in San Antonio. For me, things like reading by candlelight or sitting in my idling car for warmth and wi-fi brought me back to the terribly sad and traumatic moments of Hurricane Harvey and all that came with it. On top of  the unrelenting stress that we have all been living under for so long — the ugly politics, the insurrection, the shaky economy, the coronavirus — you start to feel like Job. And then you get a freaky snow and ice storm in what usually feels like living in the middle of a desert and, well … you see what happens when hell freezes over. 

     Today, ten days after all this began, most of us are back to normal. Temperatures are in the 70s, things have thawed out, our own water problem has been solved, and we have been able to restock the pantry.  The damage to our yard and trees and my husband’s beautiful garden is significant, but he’s determined to renew and replant. All the Texas politicians and the leaders of ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas — great name, but not so reliable) are busy blaming each other for the failure of the grid though, in truth, scientists in every field admit to the challenge of balancing between low probability and high consequences when attempting to plan for the future. If Texans can learn anything from this horror story, it may be that we can’t have it all, both low-cost energy and a fail-safe grid. 

     Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the San Francisco poet associated with the “beat generation,” died yesterday at the age of 101. Some words from one of his poems seem apropos: “The world is a beautiful place to be born into…if you don’t mind a touch of hell now and then…”

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The Covid Show

 Since beginning in late January of last year, the Covid 19 virus has been center stage.  At first, it was the foreign invader, immediately suspect because of its origin, something to be concerned about, but contained. Then it became a bigger threat, a world player, much like a common adversary in war. Here at home, it was undersold, dismissed as a benign nuisance that would simply “go away.” When it didn’t go away and started to have profound effects on American life, it took on a larger social role, becoming a player in political gamesmanship and partisan identities. And while all the arguing and posturing were going on, the coronavirus continued to command the stage.

     Operation Warp Speed amped up the drama. Ever since the Pfizer and the Moderna covid vaccines were granted emergency use authorization by the FDA back in December, the race has been on. The vaccines have indeed become a ray of hope for a nation, and a world, frozen by fear and anxiety over a deadly disease that seems to be out of control. Now at last, maybe there is “a light at the end of the tunnel,” a cliché so many keep repeating.

     Or maybe not — at least, not yet. 

     My husband and I entered this new section of  “the tunnel” along with everyone else when the initial rollout of vaccinations began. We were not immediately eligible in the 1A category for healthcare professionals and other essential workers, of course, but even with all the initial wrangling about hierarchies within categories and who’s on first and who’s up next, we soon realized that we would be eligible as seniors at some point in group1B. By this time, in early January, the coronavirus was raging here in Texas (along with everything and everyone else), and I began to hear of more and more people whom I knew who had contracted Covid. Suddenly, I felt as though we were all competing for life in a drama already ending in tragedy for so many. 

     And then we realized that the rollout wasn’t really rolling at all, that there was but a loosely contrived patchwork of providers varying from state to state and county to county and town to town. As vaccine eligibility opened up to 1B, lines of thousands formed at vaccination sites, many waiting for hours and hours amid total confusion over a distribution system that simply wasn’t in place: How do you find out where the distribution centers are? How many people can be vaccinated? How do you get in line? Do you just go down before daybreak and stand or sit or idle in your car and wait?  (Scenes of that scenario on  local San Antonio TV were reminiscent of the horrible sight of hundreds of cars in a food-pantry line here that had made the national news back in December.)

     By Inauguration Day, hospitals and their staffs were at breaking points with Covid patients, the national death toll was pushing half a million, and I only knew one person (a friend in Seattle) who had actually secured an appointment for a vaccine. I started having bad dreams about being in a supermarket elbowing and pushing my way down a long, sparsely-stocked aisle in a race toward some rolls of toilet paper at the end. Evidently, my dreams were prescient: the Biden administration soon had to admit that not only were there major distribution snafus, but that there weren’t enough vaccines available to inoculate everyone who was eligible, much less everyone who wanted to be. 

    Ironically, these revelations and the sudden interruption in vaccine delivery seemed to give state and county officials time to redraw their priorities for distribution, and local hospitals and distribution centers time to figure out how they were going to dispense the shots equitably. Here in San Antonio, where there are huge areas, mostly in underserved neighborhoods, without broadband access, and where there are large numbers of retired people who are not computer savvy, or even physically mobile, the issue of equal access is understandably a major concern. What has emerged in answer to these problems is, once again, a hodgepodge of accessible avenues for the vaccines that become available at various sites and at various times: by telephone only, by waitlist only, by on-line only, by being part of a hospital group, a VA group, even part of a limited social network that sends alerts about new locations and registrations? It is a wild, stressful competition, which makes the hunt for toilet paper, Clorox wipes and other less-important shortages seem like leisurely shopping!

     My husband and I have been active participants in this craziness for the last three weeks. Working the phones — three phones between us, actually (two cells and one land-line), calling over and over again only to be met by busy signals, making former calls to the airlines or the cable companies seem stress-free. We have manned two desktop computers, each trying to log onto a site and trying, if possible, to coordinate appointment times by screaming at each other across the room. We have gotten ourselves on waitlists with weeks’ away possibility, nothing secure but forever hopeful. And we have continued to check updated sites everyday and updated listings in the paper and pursued rumor and heresay and any other avenue of gossip and information which might conceivably reveal an opportunity for Covid salvation. I even followed an inside lead from the mayor of a neighboring town who is a member of my church. (Almost succeeded with that tip, but then I hesitated when choosing an appointment time and — whoosh!All slots suddenly filled right before my eyes: 900 appointments gone in under 3 minutes.) 

     To say that this ordeal has been the ultimate experience of  FOMO (fear of missing out) is to put it mildly. With new strains of the virus and ever-mounting cases all around us, the stress of this pursuit has become way more than simply the stress of competition among eager consumers. This is now a drama of epic proportions, a matter of life and death.

     Finally, late last Friday afternoon, we got a call from the County waitlist. Hallelujah! For a person who has a needle phobia, I never thought I would be so thrilled to hear about getting a shot (which seems to be administered more as a javelin throw than as an injection, but I won’t think about that now). We have appointments for vaccinations later this week — Moderna, which my husband keeps calling Modelo because that is his favorite brand of beer. (Funny, Corona is mine.)  Anyway, the waitlist had 12,000 names on it; the County received 4,000 doses. Good thing we got on line early on the first day of registration. 

      As happy as I am that we have finally secured vaccines, I am under no illusions: being vaccinated won’t put an end to all worries and we will have to remain ever vigilant about its effectiveness against new viral strains. We will have to continue to wear KN 95 masks and keep socially distant until we can feel more comfortable in the presence of others, but the vaccine does offer some hope and some peace of mind to many of us, at least for now, and that is welcome.

     Everyone keeps writing about and talking about an eventual return to “the new normal,” by which they really mean a return to the “old normal,” but alas, I think the “before days” is a long-running show that has now closed forever. We, our society, and our way of life have been profoundly affected by this pandemic, and we would be wise to look at life as it is now, with all its changes and compromises, as part of the new normal we will will have to embrace. 

     This is not a dress rehearsal, this is a real reality show. We have to be prepared to play our parts, even as the script constantly changes.    

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Peace and Quiet

     Do you hear the silence? The lack of dings on your cellphone, the absence of “Breaking News” bulletins on your TV, the reduction of text messages and e-mails and even phone calls full of commentary and exclamations from like-minded friends and those not-so-like-minded as well? Have you noticed the peace and quiet?

     I have, and it’s a blessing. I am so tired of the noise. When you think about what we have been through just his month alone — the siege on the Capitol, the National Guard security at all State capitols, the impeachment in the House, the inauguration of a new President, the explosion of Coronavirus deaths amid a crippling shortage of Coronavirus vaccines, and now an impending debate over a covid relief bill and a Senate trial for a Trump impeachment — it is mind-boggling. And we’re only talking 24 days! No wonder a majority of the population is suffering some variation of PTSD. This has all gone on for far too long and, if we can agree on nothing else, I think we can all agree that we are exhausted.  

     So, the silence of the incessant social media and the normalcy of a return to the routine White House press conference is a welcome relief.  I remarked after the first one on Day 1,  “Boy, wasn’t that dull?”  Thank goodness! I no longer feel the urgent need to tune in and bite my fingernails about what lies and conspiracy theories might be floated to create distraction that day. The news going forward may not always be good much less exciting, but at least I have confidence once again that it will be real, generated by real national and international concerns, not simply by the antics of one man.  

     Make no mistake, however; all the chaos and violence and vitriol in our society was a long-time coming, the seeds sown and nurtured long before the election of one man, and it will take a long time to repair, long after the election of another man. For all the talk of unity and forgiveness and, yes, even accountability, the moral, ethical, political, economic, regional, racial, religious, and cultural divides in America will not simply close because we wish them to, any more than not listening to the news means it isn’t bad because we didn’t hear it.  

     Americans need this national time out to do some soul searching and to evaluate our own accountability, as individuals, for whatever attitudes, actions and rhetoric we might have contributed over the years to the deep divisions that exist in our country, our communities, and our families. Only then can we hope to regain some peaceful co-existence with each other even when we disagree. It is “The Hill We Climb,”  according to Amanda Gorman: 

                                  We’ve braved the belly of the beast, 

                                  We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,

                                  and the norms and notions

                                  of what just is

                                  isn’t always just-ice. 

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Where We Stand

When I was in school, we had a name for those kids who repeatedly lied, cheated, brown-nosed, back-stabbed, grand-standed, and otherwise tried to make themselves into something they were not. We called them “fakers.” Not quite yet old enough, or sophisticated enough, to recognize personality disorders as such, we nevertheless intuitively knew that such people were trouble, were dangerous and disingenuous and not to be trusted. 

     “Kids keep you honest,” I used to say when I taught high school. “They can smell a fake a  mile away, and will call you out on it, even if the faker is the teacher.” Unfortunately, it seems a lot of those kids lost that ability as they grew up. And so the nation elected as a president someone who has spent his life promoting a brand and projecting an image of what he is not. We elected a faker.

     Originally I had planned to write a humorous post this month, a spoof on the more outlandish conspiracy theories as a farewell commentary on the craziness and nonsense that has flooded the airwaves and infiltrated social media for so many months, even years, during the Trump administration. Surely, after a 7,000,000 voter repudiation of “the Faker” and an Electoral College decision, we could clear our heads, return to reason, and learn to laugh again.

     And then the siege of the Capital happened. And no matter how the Trumpsters are trying to spin it even now, this was not meant to be a peaceful protest, it did not simply evolve into a spontaneous explosion of emotion, and it was not instigated by Antifa;  it was a planned, orchestrated attempt to take over the country, as the t-shirts on the chests of some protestors proclaimed: “MAGA Civil War, Jan. 6, 2021.” These people were hell-bent, incited by a fake leader who came out to rile them up and urge them to storm the Capitol (where he did not, as promised, join them).  It was his last-ditch effort to overturn a legitimate election, one that has gone on way too long, but one that has been recounted, upheld, certified, and supported by state and local election officials, and validated by over 60 federal court cases and two Supreme Court pronouncements. We had an all-out insurrection over fake claims of a landslide by a fake president, a sore loser who refuses to relinquish power.

     Who would have believed  it would come to this? Evidently, no one, given the expressions of shock and surprise by so many of his congressional allies and the crocodile tears of disappointment and dismay by so many of his followers. 

      What fakers! All these people who looked the other way and refused to stand up, who rationalized their support (and votes) for a higher purpose (anti-abortion, judgeships, etc.), or who simply aligned themselves with him for their own personal gain and self-interest knew exactly what they were doing. How dare they feign shock and surprise now.  And the others, those MAGA mad hatters who are so disgruntled and aggrieved because they feel left out of mainstream (inclusive, multi-cultural) America, found the perfect leader who validated their anger and helped them feel empowered. They, too, knew exactly what they were doing. How dare they excuse the violence and mayhem in storming the Capitol by claiming to have just “gotten carried away with the moment,” as one pseudo-apologetic protestor did last week. 

     So, where do we stand now? According to news reports this morning, we stand at the precipice of an all-out civil war, with preliminary attacks on all fifty state capitols this weekend and the promise of open warfare on inauguration day. Thankfully, the safety of members of congress has been assured: they have been informed that the cost of bullet-proof vests is fully tax deductible. I feel better already. They can return to the Capitol to continue to debate impeachment and removal of the Faker from office until well into the next administration, if there is one.  

     There are 74,000,000 million people in this country who voted for Donald Trump. Some of them are friends and relatives of mine and, contrary to what the far left might have us believe,  they aren’t all stupid, even if they have forgotten some of those adolescent schoolyard lessons from school. A good many of them are just plain gullible, the kind of people who have been the easy marks of hucksters and charlatans, and dictators, for centuries; others, sadly too many perhaps, simply fall into the category of “good men doing nothing” while evil spreads. The point is that they, and we, are all Americans and most of us aren’t going anywhere else anytime soon. But, it is going to take a combined commitment from all of us, not just elected officials, to heal the wounds, repair the fissures in our democracy, and undo the damage this administration has wrought both at home and abroad. I pray the country can last that long.

    As for the Trumpster, reparations for his actions will be exacted from where it will hurt him the most, not from the loss of any Republican party clout or restrictions from holding office, but from the erosion of his brand, the defection of his financiers, the demise of his golf clubs and hotels, the onslaught of civil and criminal lawsuits, the outstanding debts that will come due, and the ultimate true revelations about his assets and liabilities. “God walks slowly,” an elderly friend of mine used to say, “but He always catches up to you.”

     And God is not a faker.

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Channeling Ebenezer

The period between Christmas and New Year’s is always a time for reflection as we relegate what was to the past, anticipate what might be in the future, and struggle for a clearer perspective in the present. We may not have the benefit of ghosts to guide us as Scrooge does in A Christmas Carol, nor do our transformations generally happen in only one night, but we all have visions and memories and nightmares to inform us just the same, if only we will pay attention.

     This is especially true this year. 2020 will go down not as one long night, but as one long year of visions, memories, and nightmares living under the specter of death. That constant reminder of our own mortality, every day on the news and in our own communities, prompts more than a fleeting moment of reflection on what really matters — even among those who persist in the belief that Covid is a hoax (“…until they get it,” as one ER doctor quipped on TV).

     So, okay, we can all agree that 2020 has been a horrible year. Between the Covid pandemic, the political divisiveness and ugliness, the racial strife and violence, the economic woes and catastrophic effects on individual families and businesses, not to mention the fires and hurricanes and other natural disasters, it seems as though all the worst ghosts of Christmases past, present and future have visited us all at once. And we struggle to make sense of it all, to gain some personal insights about ourselves, and to find some positive lessons going forward into the new post-Covid normal, whatever and whenever that may be. 

     Back in March, my initial response to the sudden upending our lifestyle was one of extreme busyness around the house. Let me at least tackle these over-stuffed drawers and clothes closets while I have the time, I figured, as I unpacked my luggage from our suddenly cancelled Australia trip. Thus began a furious streak of cleaning out, clearing out, and giving away.  In a matter of weeks, I had gone through the whole house, even through storage bins out in the garage. I felt lighter and primly efficient by letting sensible answers to basic questions guide my purge: Will I ever wear high heels again, or need china place settings for 24, or use old lesson plans? Will I ever press flowers, make tassels, weave ribbons, decorate birthday cakes, paint in oils or acrylics, do decoupage, make draperies or upholster furniture again? Gradually, the answers to those questions revealed more than just a no-nonsense verdict for disposal.

     It occurred to me that being at home during a pandemic — with limited mobility, little social interaction, few unnecessary outings, no travel, no shopping, no dining out, no theatre or concerts or crowded events — is exactly what old age is like.  It is life reduced and restricted.  In culling my possessions, I had to come to terms with my age and stage in life, with what I can’t, and probably won’t, do ever again.  As it turns out, that may be okay. Growing old is a privilege after all, not a curse — especially when considered in a year of so much untimely death. 

     From evaluating the whens, wheres, and hows of my personal possessions day after day, a  vision emerged of a life well lived and deep gratitude grew for all I have experienced and all those whom I have known. Odd how the simple, but deliberate act of cleaning out material possessions can move one to spiritual insights, but that is exactly what happened. I realized that I have no regrets whatsoever about how I’ve lived my life, and that were I to die tomorrow (which I certainly hope won’t be the case), I could only be profoundly thankful for the wonderful life I’ve had.   

     Now I have never been what you could even remotely call a peaceful person, neither on the inside or the outside. A Type A to the nth degree, I have always been animated and busy, my mind wandering in a thousand different directions, my attention focused on “what’s next” rather than what is now or what was then. My Mother’s life-long, and  ultimately dying, wish for me was that I might find a sense of peace one day. I always dismissed that as impossible, saying “I just wasn’t born a peaceful soul.” 

     Isn’t it ironic, then, that in this year of such universal chaos and fear, death and destruction, anger and violence, I have become more calm and collected than I have ever been— dare I even say “peaceful?”  I have been able to focus intellectually and to produced some satisfying creative work. I have stepped back from the passions of divisive politics and come to accept that which I alone cannot change. Rather than causing resentment and depression, the Covid-induced time-out has actually given me a quiet space in which to reevaluate not just my possessions, but also my activities, my faith, and my relationships going forward. I have learned what I can do without; more importantly, I have learned that everything I really need is right here at home.

     Scrooge’s overnight transformation made him into a person who no longer feared death because he had learned from the spirits how to live. “His own heart laughed,” Dickens writes, “and that was quite enough for him.” My encounter with the ghosts of 2020 has not been as dramatic as Ebenezer’s perhaps, but it has produced a very real change in attitude toward acceptance and appreciation of the present without undue fear and dread of the future. Do I miss my friends and family members and hope to be able to visit them again in person sometime soon? Certainly. Do I dream of another fabulous trip and hope to wear my Outback hat in the Outback one day? Absolutely. Am I over the nightmares about what might happen next and anxiety attacks over what I can’t control? I can’t be sure, but I have to trust in a peaceful heart. 

     And if I can do that, maybe I have not the ghosts of 2020,  but the spirit of my Mother to thank.

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Oh Tannenbaum!

  As it has been for the last several years, our tree this year is a 10 foot Nordmann fir that came in from Oregon. Over the last few years, Nordmann firs have become our favorite because they have softer needles and resist shedding as the tree dries — a real plus in the hot, dry climate of Texas even in December. We got it up a little earlier this year, since our local nursery only gets a limited shipment of taller, unique variety trees, and because a run on real trees in this pandemic year was being predicted (and has, in fact, occurred). Anyway, it is a beautiful tree, full and perfectly shaped, though our son had to haul it home for us in his Ford F150 and help us set it up. 

     I am one of those rare people who has had a real, live Christmas tree every year of my life, no matter where I lived. Not to say that they have all been as beautiful and regal and this one, but still… When I was a girl, our tree was always purchased from the local Optimist Club lot set up downtown. A dear family friend worked that sale every year, and he would set aside a nice tree for my Mother and me and then help us get it secured into the trunk of the car. (The tree was never that large, maybe 5 feet or so, but remember that cars were big and trunks were roomy back in those days).

     I look at old photographs of Christmases growing up with those scrawny, wobbly trees decked out in multi-colored bubble lights, various kinds of glass ornaments, and wads of silver tinsel, and I have to laugh. Somehow, the tree was always leaning sideways — maybe because my Mother usually didn’t get the tree into the stand too securely, so she’d tie it to the wall with string. But no matter. That tree with its mishmash of colors and assorted decorations seemed magical, even as I got older, and it gave rise to our enduring tradition to “sit and enjoy the tree” with some hot chocolate, or something stronger.

     When my husband and I were first married and living in New York, we too bought a real tree from a civic group lot, but we chose a bigger, fuller Balsam. We (he) would tie the tree to the roof of our car and then, when we got to our building, the two of us would haul it upstairs to our apartment from the parking lot. We had no ornaments or decorations, of course, so we started from scratch shopping at a nursery that featured fabulous holiday displays. For some reason, we went with a pink-and-white sugarplum theme, along with tiny pink lights. By the time we left five years later, we had accumulated quite a collection, and so continued to decorate our main tree, and then eventually a second tree in larger houses, with all the sugarplum stuff. (I only finally gave up those bins of pink sugarplums, along with the idea of a full-size second tree, when we moved here about 10 years ago.) 

     Ah, but it was those 30 plus years living in Connecticut where our Christmas tree expertise and our New England winter style really evolved. In Stamford, our living room had a high, vaulted ceiling which easily accommodated 14+ foot tree, and we discovered tree farms where you could cut your own fresh tree. Our yearly sojourn became the Jones Family Tree Farms up-county in Shelton, CT.  Never mind that in the middle of December in Connecticut, with the wind and the cold and the snowy sleet, even the hot chocolate served up in the Homestead Barn wasn’t enough to warm the chill; we were determined to live the Norman Rockwell picture-perfect Christmas.

     At the Jones Farm  we were introduced to varieties of trees we had never encountered beyond just the Balsam. There were Frasers, Douglas, White Pine, and of course, the king of them all, the Blue Spruce. Initially, we opted for the magnificent Blue Spruce, with the slightly blue/grey color and the strong boughs that hold large ornaments comfortably. These trees are extremely heavy and the calibre of their trunks are quite large. We had Blue Spruce for quite a number of years until we could no longer lift them and could no longer abide the prickly nature of their needles. Then we switched to Frasier firs, lighter in weight and easier to handle.

     It was during these years when my Martha Stewart kicked in and that we went to a pheasant theme with bronze-brown accents. Large Martha glass ornaments, pheasant feathers, and bronze spiral drops became our dominant theme, and I even hand-painted the little white lights bronze and rust. (I was into glass painting at the time. ) You can’t really tell this on the photo above, but believe this compulsive person, those lights are painted!

     We discovered Nordmann firs here in San Antonio and, once again, we have a high ceiling which can accommodate a tall tree. Everything was fine until about five years ago when we got the tree stuck in the doorway and had to call a neighbor to help us get it in and up. Since we are still putting up a tall tree, we have had to enlist the help of our son. He doesn’t mind, bless him, but the time may be coming, as it did with the sugarplum  decorations and a second indoor tree, to say “Enough.”      

       So, while we have had a real tree all these years, my husband and I began to seriously discuss investing in a high quality artificial tree this year. But then we dithered about, ordered some sample branches of trees we were considering (which still haven’t arrived), and then decided that maybe we would go on and enlist our son’s help and struggle with a large live tree one last year. Now that it’s up, I’m glad we did. We can “sit and enjoy the tree” one more time and postpone the inevitable one more year.

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Look to the Light

     It has been a long year, for all of us, and hope and comfort have been in short supply. Thus, we have each been forced to find various ways to sustain ourselves. My way, as I have often talked about before, is my art, my art quilting and my writing. My creative endeavors have gotten me through many difficult periods in my life including this very long year because they are absorbing. Psychologists call it being “in the flow.” 

     But, flow or not, you can’t create when you are highly distracted, so you have to turn off your phone, tune out the TV, discount social media, and retreat into your own world of work. As chaotic and complicated and troubling as this year has been, some of us have managed to hunker down and produce, thus preserving our sanity and having something worthwhile to show for all these months spent at home. Ideally, we not only save our own sanity, but maybe we also contribute something to the larger community.

     “Look to the Light” (above) is created from my own photograph from the Glass Hall of the International Forum in Tokyo. I took this photo years ago when we went to Japan to launch a ship being named in honor of my husband and his work in the international shipping industry. In truth, though we have traveled far and wide, we would probably have not gone to Japan had it not been for this particular honor and opportunity; had we not, what a missed opportunity that would have been!  Japan is an exquisite country, and Tokyo a marvel of good manners, good design, and unfailing civility, particularly remarkable in a city of 37+ million people.

     My art quilts are usually designed from my own photographs, which are often of places, particularly buildings, with which I have special connections and which have left a lasting impression on me. This particular building in Tokyo did just that. Though the architect, Rafael Viñoly is not Japanese (he is Uruguayan-American), he managed to capture both the simple elegance of the Japanese aesthetic and the structural integrity of a building meant to serve real people in a dense urban environment.  I was so struck by this building when I was there, so moved by the experience of being it in, and so uplifted by the sheer beauty of the design, that I have never forgotten it. Nor have I ever abandoned a desire to capture this image in an art quilt.

     I have worked on this project most of all of this COVID year. The major challenges, and there were many, were ones of perspective and color values. My foundation photograph was excellent, if I say so myself, but even so, creating a representative piece in a totally different medium, especially in fabric, is not simply a matter of blowing up the image and making a pattern. This structure, after all, has been constructed by a renowned architect, so who am I to try to replicate his genius? But I do try.

     For me, the inspirational message  of this quilt is the uplifting spirit of hope, of  looking out from the darkness up to the light. I have finally, after much difficulty and anxiety, finished it and am submitting it to an international SAQA (Studio Art Quilts Association) competition for an exhibition called “Light.” As usual, I am proud that I made the deadline for submission (end of this month), but I am also proud of the work itself. It may be one of my best, and it is certainly my most memorable and representative 2020 project.

     The message here, for myself and everyone else, is best stated by UPS worker Ben Hertle of Maple Grove, MN: “Don’t give in to darkness and fear, there’s beauty everywhere.” (NBC, “Inspiring America” segment, 11/25/20) 

     And that is my wish for you this Thanksgiving: “Look to the light.”

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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.