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.

millenium bridge

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.” 


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.


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:



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?

Boring Travelogue #2

In which Sara forgets what day it is, we expand our geographical glossary, and meditate on mattresses.

It’s finally happened. Two months into my four-month sabbatical, I’ve forgotten what day of the week it is. The only reason I can come reasonably close to naming the date is because the Fourth of July happened and I heard no fireworks and saw no American flags. I thought of friends with various Independence Day traditions, and while I miss the friends with whom I associate the holiday, I don’t miss the celebratory rituals.

On Day Five of the Coast-to-Coast walk, or C2C, Mark and I left Grasmere and hiked as quickly as we could the 7 or 8 miles to Patterdale, where we had copiously arranged to meet our son who was flying from Portland to Chicago to Manchester, and then taking the train north from Manchester to Windemere and then a bus from Windemere to Patterdale. We got to Patterdale long before the bus was due to arrive and checked in with the hotel which doubles as a bus stop, to learn for the first time that the bus we’d planned to meet only ran on weekends; this was Tuesday. The end of the story was that Nathan managed to take a cab to our B&B up the road and was all settled in by the time we finally got there. He was jet-lagged and miserable, it was a miserable, wet afternoon, the 400-year-old farmhouse where we stayed smelled like wet dog and cows, and I came down with a hideous cold. But….

On Day Six we said goodbye to all that and hike the most strenuous leg of the whole trip: 16 miles, mostly uphill (or so it felt) from Patterdale to Shap.

IMG_1734The Coast-to-Coast is like a small town that goes with you: you see the same people, not necessarily every day, but every second or third day, either on the trail, or at the pub later that day, or over breakfast. On the fifth day it seemed like everyone started at once (perhaps because all of our guidebooks had stressed what a long hard day it would be), but the trail was crowded, a long line of hikers going up the winding path from the town to this high mountain lake.

IMG_1743I’ve posted elsewhere about the Shap Abbey, but it’s worth mentioning again; in the middle of nowhere on the eastern edge of the Lake District, it’s what walkers see about 30 minutes before entering the town of Shap. Shap Abbey was the last abbey to be founded in England in 1199, and the last to be dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540. The original tower is all that remains in tact. After walking 16 miles I didn’t really have the chi to actually tour the abbey, so in this photo you’re seeing everything I saw!

IMG_1746Day Seven was a much shorter hike, from Shap to the village of Orton. By now the landscape has changed considerably; we are definitely not in the Lake District anymore, but walking along stone walls through pasture after pasture in what I have always thought of as traditional English countryside; rolling hills and open spaces stitched together by stone walls and dotted with occasional trees and picturesque barns. The weather treated us better and better as the day went on and we could actually see our shadows by the time we got to Orton. We stayed in The Best B&B ever, the kind of place you might like to stay for a long weekend, not just a night between hikes. You can look it up.

IMG_1758On Day Eight we walked from Orton to Kirkby-Stephen, one of the booming metropolises along the way. (Meaning: more than one place to eat, an ATM, and the first traffic light we’ve seen since leaving London.) We had a fabulous dinner and explored the town and the church, which is named simply, Kirkby-Stephen Parish Church. The highlight of the church for me–worthy of a blog post all its own, perhaps–is the presence of the “Loki Stone,” the Norse god of mischief “Christianized” (according to the authorities) into a devil in chains. The trickster Loki comes to us from the Vikings and has been in place at the church in Kirkby-Stephen since the ninth or tenth century. Who knew?

Boring Travelogue #1

In which Sara injures several ribs and milks the injury for all it’s worth, Mark is valiant, we walk 38 miles, drink a lot of tea, and discover over and over again that English cuisine is much better than it used to be.

IMG_1690On Thursday, June 27, we took a train from London to St. Bee’s, the start of our 191-mile walk from coast to coast, that is, from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. My first mistake, perhaps, was to allow myself a bit of smugness when I saw a couple on the train embarking on the same walk with medium-sized daypacks and gigantic suitcases, clearly having engaged one of the many baggage services that Mark and I have all along eschewed, opting instead for larger packs stuffed full with everything we need.


Here we are with our packs at the very start of the journey.

However—however—I should have learned long ago not to be smug about anything. Our first night in St. Bee’s, after dropping off our packs at our B&B, putting on a layer of rain gear and tromping back into town for a delicious dinner, we walked up to St. Bee’s church, a wonderful historic place dating back to the tenth century, and in continuous use as a house of worship from then until now.





We explored the church yard behind the church, where several headstones were decorated with the same distinctive, ancient cross I saw in a niche against the church building. In the back of the church year was a wall about chest high, over which my dear husband suggested we climb to get to the public footpath back to our B&B. There was a little ledge about the size of a banana half-way up the wall; he put one foot on the ledge, swung himself over and landed, gracefully as always, onto the other side. I followed, but my foot slipped off the mini-ledge. Had I been in better shape, I might have used that opportunity to do a handstand on the top of the stone wall. As it was, I came crashing down on it, landing squarely on the left side of my ribcage. (Ouch.) No more “hotel workouts” to supplement the walking, no more smugness about not paying someone to carry my bag, no more coughing or blowing my nose without a constant reminder of my own frailty.

Luckily, I wasn’t seriously hurt, and while sleeping has been a pain (literally), I am happiest when I’m hiking, and the hiking has been glorious, especially after the second day when I engaged the baggage service.

The first day we walked north along the coast about four miles, then inland toward Cleator, our first overnight on the walk. Along the way we stopped in a pub for tea and met a delightful father and daughter making the walk, and walked with them the next few miles.  After the dramatic climb up the coast from the beach at St. Bee’s, this first day was mostly flat, walking through fields and woods along stone fences and creeks, passing the occasional farmhouse. I don’t have a lot of photos from this day because, well, it was pouring rain.

Day Two was the shortest day of the whole 18-day walk; about five miles, including a dramatic up-and-down hill. We arrived in the village of Ennerdale Bridge in time to enjoy a late lunch at one local pub and then, a few hours later, an amazing dinner at another. (This is when we began to realize that English food is not what it used to be. In London, we ate mostly Indian, Caribbean, or Thai food, but here in the country, it’s all local, and good. Not a mushy pea in sight.)

IMG_1718By the time we get to Day Three, we’re coming to know the written voice of the author of our ever-handy Coast-to-Coast guidebook, whose maps strike fear and trembling in the heart of most walkers. The Zen koan for this day’s map: “The steep path is the right path.” We walked fourteen miles from Ennerdale Bridge into the heart of the Lake District, including an amazing climb up a “Beck,” or creek, onto a high windy (like 55 mph) ridge. During the climb I was grateful for every single lunge and every minute of cardio over the past few years!



Day Four: Sunshine! And scenery that defies description, three-hundred and sixty degrees of it.  The word for the day is “crag.” As in “we just go over one more of these and then we descend down into the town.” There were a whole lot of these crags, but each one rewarded us with fabulous views and ever-increasing anticipation of the descent into Grasmere, the epicenter of the Lake District and the town of Wordsworth.

To be continued….

What’s your daily cup?

I’ve got two favorite daily cups: the one I have first thing in the morning, usually between 5 and 6 am. That would be tea, steeped strong, with a little one-percent milk. I’ve got fairly strong needs around this cup of tea: the kind of tea (Peets’ Scottish Breakfast), the strainer, the water temperature, the time it steeps in its Deruta mug, the peace and quiet during which I drink it….When I travel, I bring all of these things with me, including an electric kettle for boiling water. I like to think that into the making of this one cup of tea I pour all of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, leaving me free the rest of the day to act like a relatively normal person in almost every respect.

My second daily cup happens two or three hours later, just before going into my office. After making the day’s lunches, going to the gym, taking my son to school, and any other domestic errands, I’ll go to one of several regular spots for a latte (12 oz, half-decaf, two-percent milk), and write in my journal, answer email, balance my checkbook, or spend time on a big clunky work-project that is easier done away from the interruptions of the office. I often schedule meetings with friends – new and old – during this second daily cup.

An old friend used to say “Ah, breakfast, one of my three very favorite meals!” or “Do you know that lunch is one of my three most favorite meals?” or “Food, my favorite!” I’m that way about times of the day. My favorite time of the day is that first cup of tea in the dark before anyone is awake. And it’s also that time when I sit down and treat myself to a latte before heading into the office. (Is it still a treat if you do it every day? I think so, although some would disagree.) Or it’s when I finally sit down to the piles on my desk after the morning’s meetings and phone calls, with a clean glass and a fresh pitcher of water, ready to get back to that clunky project I began hours earlier. Or it’s when I fall into bed at night to read a page or two before falling asleep.

What’s your daily cup?