The third day of Christmas: what does this bug have to do with the Northwest Industrial area?

IMG_3372This bug is one of a collection of bug ornaments given to us by my mother one year. I think everyone got bugs from her that year. We have a grasshopper, a ladybug, this fellow, and a multitude of beetles. (Because, as we know from J.B.S. Haldane, “If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”)

This ornament reminds me, every time I see it, of my mother’s far-reaching creativity and aesthetic. She is a woman of many talents, and brings an artistic flair to everything: sewing, cooking, home decor, gift-wrapping, horticulture. I have none of these talents but I like to think that what I have gotten for her is an equally wide-ranging aesthetic appreciation. Only with my mother can I laugh and giggle about the collection of bugs she gave us for Christmas. Only with her can I drive through Portland’s Northwest Industrial area and say: Isn’t this gorgeous? For that, as for so many things, I give thanks.industrial-area

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The second day of Christmas: What do you collect?

IMG_3373Every year I think I’m going to have a smaller, simpler tree. Or a themed tree; do you ever do that? Restrict the tree to ornaments that are white, or hand-made or given to us as gifts, or angels, or birds?  Each year, no matter what, my handful of Margaret Furlong ornaments, which I miraculously store in their original boxes year after year, are always the first ornaments on the tree.

Each year when I re-encounter these white porcelain ornaments with their satisfying weight my mind goes to phenomenon of collecting things. Some people do, and some don’t. I’m in the “some don’t” category, but I always want to jump ship into the sea of collectors.

I get oddly envious when I encounter others’ collections: pie birds, vintage bottles, conch shells, antique tape measures, or anything else that it would never occur to me to collect until I see it on someone else’s shelves. Years ago I worked with someone who had a snow-globe collection. She was being interviewed by someone from the New York Times and she didn’t want to have the person come to her apartment, so she brought all her snow-globes into the office. They lined all the shelves on three walls; probably about 300 snow-globes (she really didn’t want that photographer in her apartment!). They chronicled every trip she’d ever taken, as well as every friendship with anyone who cared enough about her or her collection to contribute.

What make some people collectors?

To a non-collector, it looks like it’s about loyalty and discipline. These are not qualities I lack, so there must be something else. It’s not like I have trouble holding onto things. But my things are more accumulations than collections. Yarn. Greeting cards. Knick-knacks. Perhaps the loyalty and discipline that sets collecting apart from accumulating is wed to particularity, a singularity of focus that sets collections apart from accumulation.

I’m left with more questions than answers. If I’m lucky, you who are collectors will comment: what do you collect? Why? What does it mean to you? What are your plans?

Modern art and me

Last week my family and I had dinner with the family that hosted us in East London for the summer in 2002. It was great to reconnect and we had joyful and far-reaching conversation. At one point we were talking–I’m not sure why–about art. And I was reminded yet again that there are two kinds of people in the world: people who like modern art, and people who don’t. Or at least, people who say they do, and say they don’t. (I’m guessing there are a whole lot of people like me who a) like everything and b) don’t know beans about art.)

In any case, the conversation spurred me to get past my general aversion to museums, especially popular museums in large, foreign cities, and today I made the pilgrimage with thousands and thousands of others across the Millenium Bridge to the Tate Modern. It was late in the day which did not deter the crowds one bit, but it meant that for me, I started, rather than finished, with tea. I sat in the comfortable cafe with a cuppa and a coupla scones and looked at map to plan my visit, knowing that I would poop out after an hour, tea or no tea.

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was so jazzed by the art and the space that I lasted three hours instead of one. It was truly splendid, and If you want see a whole bunch of images, here are some of the photos I took.

But I was really there for Mark Rothko. Mark and I have a special relationship. For most of my adult life, I had been vaguely familiar with his work, familiar like:  “Oh yeah, that guy who does those big huge squares.” 

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When my father died in 2005, that changed. I was in a whole new world of hurt. In the airport heading home from Philadelphia to Portland for the last time, I had a task to look forward to: I had volunteered to write with the news of my father’s death to people who were around when I was a kid, but with whom my father had lost touch over recent years. In the airport bookstore I found a box of cards by abstract expressionists. I never liked them before. I never understood non-representational painting. I wanted art to refer to something I could name, and to make the familiar more so.

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But now, in the uncharted territory of grief, where I couldn’t put words to anything, these artists were saving my life. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman. How did I ever live without them? Their illogical order of things accompanied me during that journey, and I was able to write over and over again in the airport coffee shop and then on the plane:  it has been a long time since we’ve been in touch; I am guessing you have probably heard by now but I want to be sure you know that my father died. You were such an important part of his life when I was growing up…. Through this repetition I came to understand what, in my work, I have told others over and over again: the little tasks right after a death keep us from falling apart, and keep us connected to one another, to the living. And now I could tell people about how Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock somehow–as mysterious as death, as mysterious as Eucharist–became the map with which I navigated the way back to myself without my father.

nortonSo visiting the Tate Modern was, in a way, a pilgrimage to visit my man Rothko, who has a whole room there of paintings which he himself actually gave to the Tate, and there’s a great story that goes with them. (Some of you probably already know it.) In the late 1950s, Rothko was commissioned to paint a set of murals for the fashionable Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the Seagrams Building. He found the murals were darker than his previous work: maroon, dark red, and black. He eventually realized that they were too dark and serious to be the backdrop of a restaurant, and withdrew from his commission. (And I’m guessing there’s another side to that story; you can look it up.) Instead, he gave the paintings to the Tate Gallery as an expression of his affection for England and for British artists, particularly JMW Turner. Go figure. I’ve always been a fan of Turner’s, ever since a painting of his was on the cover of my very favorite college English anthology.

But it never would have occurred to me to see any artistic affinity between the two. Yet here they are:

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The second painting represents Rothko’s “transitional work,” when he was trying to make up his mind what kind of painter he was going to be. Most people who are familiar with Rothko are familiar with the later stuff.

So now, if you’ve read this whole post, you know pretty much everything I know about art. Where do you fall on the modern-premodern continuum, if there is such a thing? Has art ever saved your life?

Feast your eyes….

Here are some photos from my afternoon at the Tate Modern. No captions, no commentary, no nothing. (Phew!)

No commentary except about this first photo, that is, of a guard (I know they don’t call them “guards” any more….a concierge?) at the Tate. At the risk of seeming both overly forward and horribly middle-aged (not to mention American), I told her I thought her hair was a work of art and asked if I could take her picture. She was happy to oblige, and took my request very seriously in a way that I found touching.

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Postcards from Edinburgh

In which Sara does a lot of urban hiking, reports on her writing, learns that Presbyterians have cathedrals, too, and makes new friends.

From the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art

From the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art

I’ve been in Edinburgh for a week and having a wonderful time. (Would anyone have expected any different?) The week–Week One of Two, but this may be the only blog post–has been a great balance of writing, walking, and just the right amount of sight-seeing. I’m staying at Emmaus House, a Benedictine-inspired guest house conveniently situated close to just about everything, without being too much in the thick of the heavy tourist trade that characterizes much of this city. Most days I walk to the gym after breakfast: about 25 minutes along the Royal Mile, the most touristed part of town, but fun to walk along before all the tourists get there. I’ve explored a few of the abundant (and free) museums and art galleries, and done most of the obligatory churchgoing one

From the Lady Chapel at Old St. Paul's

From the Lady Chapel at Old St. Paul’s

would expect: Evensong at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Sunday Eucharist at Old St. Paul’s, and a self-guided tour of St. Giles which is, as everyone assured me it would be, an amazing place, massive and rich in history as the mother church of Presbyterianism in Scotland should be. A few more places remain on my list to see (and feel free to comment with the houses of worship on your must-see list, if you haven’t already).

St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral

St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral

I have been making progress in my writing life which, being as it’s me, has been very slow and fraught with procrastination, distraction, agonizing, self-doubt, and criticism. However, thanks to help from mentors and friends along the way (who are secretly travelling with me even if they don’t even know it), I’ve been able to put a lot of that on the back burner and actually get some work done. Today, for the very first time since beginning this project three years ago, I suddenly realized that it was turning into a book. That I was thinking of it not just as “my writing” or “my &$%# memoir,” but “my book.” Of course, that only works if I pronounce it the way the Scots do: my boook.

IMG_1856If I was asked to identify just one highlight of Edinburgh thus far, it would have to be the discovery of Emmaus House. The small community here offers a degree of hospitality that I find incredibly nourishing, inspiring, and non-intrusive. In a short amount of time I have become attached to everyone in the house, and hope to come back over and over again in the years to come, joining the community in prayer between visits. 

The hike up to Arthur's Seat (not named for King Arthur at all...look it up!)

The hike up to Arthur’s Seat (not named for King Arthur at all…look it up!)

My first book

A few people know I’m working on something that most of the time I’m not quite ready to call a book. Everyone who knows that about me (and probably anyone who’s every written a book), knows that I vacillate between excitement and despair about writing my first book at an age that seems to be advancing far more quickly than the number of pages I write. I get morose at times when I regret not writing more, earlier in life. So imagine my joy when my mother sent me, in the mail, preciously wrapped in well-used red tissue paper, my first book.

It’s called “The Art Book.”

This is a book about art that isn’t done in pen or pencil.

I really hated to draw back then. Still do. Odd that nearly two decades before stumbling upon the Jesus story, despite my family’s best efforts to protect me from such things, I figured out some way to fashion a cross. Hmm.

“Another is tye-dye”

Tie-dye was big then, publication date circa 1967. We lived in Greenwich Village across the street from a designer tie-dye shop that custom-dyed clothes out of silk, satin, and velvet. Remember the purple tie-dye pantsuit Janis Joplin wore on the Dick Cavett show? (Of course you do, right?) I helped stir it around in a boiling pot of purple dye when I was about nine.

Paper Flowers

I could’ve made paper flowers out of tissue paper all day long if anyone would let me.

And photographs….Don’t you wish you had a shirt like that?

What about your first book? Have you written it yet? Do tell.

What’s new?

When my son was five, our family traveled around the United Kingdom for five weeks. I went on a knitting frenzy, wanting to find locally-spun yarn on each of the British Isles. I knit in the car, knit in every one of our B&Bs before breakfast and after supper, knit in pubs. Nathan desperately wanted me to teach him to knit. In a busy, crowded yarn shop in Oban, Scotland I picked up some child-sized needles and we sat down before dinner that night to have our first lesson. He sat patient and wide-eyed while I cast on enough for a little square, maybe 16 stitches. Soon he became distracted and I could tell he was fast losing interest.

“Don’t you want to learn to knit?” I asked.

“Yes. But I don’t want to make a square, Mommy. I want to make a sweater.”

Learning new things is hard. Really hard. It’s one thing to learn the correct pronunciation of someone’s name or where to find a great new restaurant or even how to use WordPress. It’s another thing to learn to make a sweater from nothing, to learn a language, to learn a whole….thing. To stick with it through thick and thin, through the rush of fantasy and the sludge of reality.

I’m trying to learn some new things. Not a new language, exactly, but kind of. And we all know that learning a language gets harder the older we get. A friend writes beautifully about the power of words, the cozy fabric we wordy types weave for ourselves and wrap around our shoulders to comfort us and warm us. The words we cook up into a hearty stew, stirring together flavors, textures, and smells mixing like so many metaphors.  Lovely, right? Now, imagine doing it in Chinese. Or Sanskrit. Or taking Intro to Anatomy at the age of 53. Or deciding to become a barista so you can make beautiful pictures in latte foam and learn that all that is actually about something entirely different: physics (that class you never took) and chemistry (that one you barely passed).

Sometimes I’m not so sure my menopausal 50-something brain can handle learning a whole lot of new things. Certainly not happily. Certainly not with the kind of comfort of dipping into a delicious new poet or a book recommended by a trusted friend. It’s a stretch, and who wants to stretch? Not I, said the Little Red Hen.

What about you? What are you learning? Where are you stretching?