16 November 2006
The Ribbon: My Nomination for Unsung Heroine
Humans have used adornments to embellish clothing since fabric was created. One of the simplest of these decorative accessories is the ribbon. Its longevity is astonishing; its multiple uses crisscross civilizations and time. Paying homage to a simple strip of narrow cloth may seem strange, but the ribbon is one of the most creatively used textiles. It is even embedded in today’s global culture.
A ribbon can be playful and serious and colorful and drab. It can be symbolic and descriptive. It can create drama or frivolity. It can render eloquence or plainness. It also can be a thread in a storyline or subject of a photograph. It can be hand woven or manufactured. Its uses are so diverse as to stimulate neurons to consider its permutations and survival.
Simplicity has its merits. But, of course, that seemingly plain band of fabric can be made as fancy as the wearer or designer or purchaser desires. Usually there is meaning and thought behind the selection of a color or width or length of the fabric. It’s not haphazard.
When I was a child, my hair was plaited in braids that hung below my chin and were decorated with ribbons to match my dress of the day. I remember all sorts of ribbons piled in round circles in my top drawer: plaids, solids, strips, dots, silks, groin grain, nylon and organza. Then I grew into the next step of ribbon adornment: the pony tail. This style, which has made a come back today (even among college students and the upper crust), allowed for ribbons to cascade down the pony tail and strike a note in the breeze. Eventually, we used ribbons to display jewelry around our necks, especially a boyfriend’s school ring.
Multiple uses begin with adornment on hair, hats and shoes–really any type of clothing will be happy to display one or many. They also can be manipulated to be the backdrop for awards and ceremonial honors. Traditionally, gifts are decorated in multi-levels of ribbons, which are embellished, scissored and twirled and decorated with trinkets. Even pop-up books use them as threads between images.
Judgments are made instantly about outward appearance—the wearing as well as the selection of clothes. It’s a measure of our culture and society that we’ve gone from one extreme to another: ribbons used by children, teenagers, women as well as haute couture designers. Just as it moves in and out of fashion (even haute couture), its utilitarianism continues.
In the twentieth century ribbons became emblematic of causes, and eventually symbolized political and social clout. They continue to perform a serious duty when displayed in certain colors: yellow (support the troops), pink (support education and research about breast cancer), red (support research on AIDS), and on and on. Ribbons have become silent and vocal partners in the war against diseases.
Ribbons are a phenomenon unto their own, because magic can be created with a simple twist of the imagination. They can inspire all sorts of uses. When I hold a new roll of very thin ribbon, it brings back memories of tying them (as you would a lariat) and placing a memento at the end for safe keeping.
For years I have used ribbons in numerous ways, but it is their role as protector of my writings that gives me the most joy. I wrap them in various combinations around my completed blank books, which secure additions stuffed throughout the pages. These tied and decorated keepsakes are the best sort of gift, because they are decorated in ribbons of my inner creations.
To nominate such an object as an unsung heroine is a bit prosaic, but I believe that as fashion brings art to people’s lives, this accessory has managed to rise from a rather simplistic life as adornment in hair and on clothes to a symbol that represents critical global issues. Even in its most abstract form such an elevation to heroine has concrete merit, because ribbons bring poignancy to serious issues and at the same time are used for frivolous entertainment. It’s the juxtaposition of an important life lesson: seeing value in our visual field and being attentive to the range of its meaning.
As symbols of low and high fashion, they come into popularity and retreat. The “beauty” of this seemingly innocuous textile is that its uses are being reinvented in cultural, social and political realms. Its place in history has been secured.
13 October 2006
Even though my present day family does not actively practice our religious heritage, we are never completely exiled from it. It’s simply a part of who we are, and in small and sometimes larger ways we bear the harvest of all that our ancestry practiced and understood.
Collective remembrance flits its way through our veins. Sometimes the slightest inkling can bring the past out of its quiet hiding. Sometimes we shield ourselves from the joy or sorrow of the memory, and other times we bask in its majesty.
31 October 2006
The loss of one family member can temporarily or permanently change family dynamics and its core identity. The wavering interplay between a family’s soul and its members is a fascinating and jumbled pile of mystery. Even though some elements of a family’s character are obvious, true exposure is not apparent until the numbers are altered or shifted.
To be sure, a family makeover is an opportunity to become something more or less than the past. An icy or heated heart buried far away from the family core can melt or freeze its soul. Even with an accumulated heritage, every birth and death redefines the interaction. It’s a continual restructuring of the family circle—widening and reducing, reducing and widening.
When my mother passed in early 2005, there was almost an immediate exhale—the kind that releases the pain of the deathwatch. She also was a challenge, but we accepted her assets and liabilities.
In the light of someone’s presence, dark is often seen. In the dark of someone’s absence, the light can appear. When she vanished physically, she left an enormous presence. In some way her determination never to leave us is realized, because her seed keeps sprouting and continuously blooms in all of us.
04 August 2006
Tom Phillips’s A Humument instantly incited the startle response in me. I could barely hold onto my thoughts. There in front of me was an altered book—a tome whose content was manipulated by Phillips’s touch. A well-known British artist, he is a man of compound talents. He is known for his beautiful alterations of text, which he changes and transports into new visual reflections. Without question these books become works of art.
I was taking a six-day intensive book arts class that teaches traditional methods of book construction. Techniques vary from sewing to gluing to folding to trimming to slicing and dicing, and there is endless time devoted to measuring. The need to be precise is mandatory for a worthy final product. Some of us are not so adept at precision.
Every student created two blank books. Time was precious and yet we had to wait and wait each step of the way as the paste dried. We learned to use various tools: clamps, awls, angels, and cinder blocks (as weights).
With the basic foundation understood, we were set free to make our own version of a book. This third book was made from inspiration and much perspiration.
The rules were no rules, and the entire class was stunned at the results of everyone’s personal projects. The variations were shrewd, witty, cunning and smart. We had a product and we claimed a bit of pride. To create three books in six days was a feat of feats. We were all delighted.
One of my classmates, who is an elementary school teacher, was motivated by Phillips’ work. She spent most of the course altering books, which she told us was not new to her.
Instantly, I had to question the process. When you grow up with reverence for printed materials, there is a staggering response to the sight of someone changing the text and the layout of a printed book. But her alterations not only caught my attention, they intrigued my sensibilities.
In the 1970s a viable book arts movement started, but the alteration of a book is quite apart from the creation of a book from inception. Still the metamorphosis of a printed book into an art form is mind stretching, provoking instant curiosity. Why would anyone want to destruct and reconstruct someone’s words and meaning?
I had a small inkling about such works, but had never seen one or been privy to details about them. Yes, I knew that artists made books that had all sorts of unusual manipulations: foldouts, pop-ups, positive and negatives spaces. But deliberately defacing a book was unsettling to me.
Afterthoughts told me that it makes sense, and I allowed my mind to expand its borders. Art is to make you smile with inspiration and admiration. Art is to make your jaw drop with confusion and profusion. Art is to tantalize, push your hot buttons, boil your emotions with excitement, and mesmerize you all at once or slowly.
Is it possible to bring new life to an old worn paperback or ragged hardbound? Yes, of course, it is. I watched as a young art teacher revived two different paperback editions of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. This renewal or restoration became more like a travelogue of her trip to China. This was a book altering with meaning and purpose, but I suspect that any artist who uses this technique is neither haphazard nor indecisive about choices to incorporate in the alteration.
Then I returned to yesteryear, and a time when I committed some form of blasphemy. With serious intentions I’d take pen in hand to underline and leave notes on individual pages. Then I reformed, and used the blank last page of the book to jot down ideas and quotes for future or immediate reference. Post-it notes also were employed, but later I decided they can easily tear a page. Eventually, I abandoned the inside markings, and now stick with pencil notations on post-its piled on top of each other or sheets of papeIt’s really all in our heads, because paperbacks are produced for one or two readings. They are not made for longevity. It’s the hardbound that is meant to endure.
Once an artist selects their text, nothing is sacred, except their imagination. A sentence or even a few words on a page can be isolated for meaning or not, and the rest can be covered with collage, paint or cut into shreds. Sometimes whole chunks of pages are removed to make room for the stuff added to the altered pages.
Does the obliteration of an author’s text mean blasphemy? Or once purchased is a book the property of the owner to do with as seen fit? Does the author give up “rights” to the words on the printed page? Does copyright apply? Up pops the concept of altering books.
In retrospect the course was more than instructional and inspirational; it defined the best of higher education: clear, comprehensive and concise information; constant one-to-one attention from the professor; distinct goals and results; value; profusion of possibilities; and eclectic students. But it also left me relentless to peruse each and every book that I encounter with a different eye to the spine’s heft. I study the binding, end pages, construction, and general design. I was always interested in design, but that has escalated with this latest experience.
Everyone looks at the cover art and dust jacket, but a book is so much more than those first few layers. Now structure fascinates me.
Artists who alter books could go by the apt name bookworms, because they edge themselves into a book–literally chewing and digesting ideas and text. In a sense their alterations are a way to reinvent the idea of what a book is and can be. But is this new bookworm performing blasphemy? Truly, it’s all in the eye and mind of the observer.
30 June 2006
Art and Nature: An Inspirational Duo
It’s a shame that there is little reverence for the artists whose canvas or paper is the land. Many great masters were gardeners too. Their palettes were not only their brushes and pens, but they used their hands, hoes, and trowels to explore innovative ideas or simply create on their small plot of the earth. They used the landscape to mold a different yet similar vision.
Along with cave walls and huge rocks, the earth was the first blank workspace for the mind’s ideas and recordings of everyday life. These creations are not less or more artistic, but certainly as creative a work.
Today’s art is constantly reshaping its meaning. There is a snail’s pace recognition that gardens are art, and art is in the garden. In 2004 the Tate Gallery in London had a major exhibition that examined the creative, emotional and intellectual ways that British artists have been affected by gardens. Currently, botanical gardens, galleries and museums also are examining this relationship.
Artistic expression and its outcome have been an enduring part of the human condition. Where a footprint etched the earth, the hand painted the soul’s angst and delights.
Many artists garden. In fact, their partnership with nature served and serves as a tangible and intangible source of creative wondering. Some artists were so inspired by nature that it was their life’s mission to interpret its presence. For others, gardening was their avocation, and it was or was not (formally) expressed in their work.
Claude Monet was the most famous artist/gardener. Although he painted other subjects, his garden in Giverny, France, was his most influential and precious inspiration. Another artist who had a passionate connection to the landscape was Henry Moore, who was the ultimate artist/partner with all that is green. His sculpture was placed in a symbolic relationship with the English landscape. As his notoriety spread, his work formed the basis for many sculpture gardens at major twentieth- century museums around the globe. Piet Oudolf, who is a native of Holland and trained as an architect, has become a twenty-first century champion and creative voice behind the garden design movement called Wave Planting. He advocates the use of shape and texture through the plantings of grasses and perennials. Truly, his masterpieces are art in its most natural form. And what can be said about Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy’s works–visions of breathtaking collaborations with nature. His outdoor site-specific art reflects the intimate bond that he has formed with the land and all its above-ground layers. He says, “When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just the material in itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave this processes continue” (Hand to Earth: Andy Goldsworthy Sculpture, 1976-1990, 1993).
Often the act of gardening is a source of meditation and solitude to create new forms of inspirations. Stanley Kunitz comes to mind. He was a former U.S. poet laureate and a devoted Cape Cod gardener. Mostly, he considered his garden to be a microcosm of life. For Kunitz and many of us, gardens are the epitome of the interconnection that is woven between nature and human nature. When you read his glorious words, the influence is obvious. Just the last few lines from The Snakes of September demonstrate the hold that nature had upon him: “After all, we are partners in this land, co-signers of a covenant. At my touch the wild braid of creation trembles.” (A Celebration for Stanley Kunitz: On His Eightieth Birthday, 1986.)
Many, many renowned artists used and are using the flora and fauna as the basis for their creativity. Examples include Georgia O’Keeffe, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Imogen Cunningham, Cézanne, Tasha Tudor and Jane Kenyon. Either the garden was their sketchbook and a place to use color, light, texture, structure and intuition, or it served as a blank book for the placement of the colorful and imaginative language of all that renews itself through the seasons. Unlike a completed work (painting, poem, photograph, novel, or sculpture), the garden serves the artist’s eye as boundless material that is ever-evolving and changing. Green space is constantly building chapters; a garden is continually refining its luster.
Eudora Welty was an avid Southern gardener. Her “green” gene was so deeply embedded that her masterful novels are injected with the names of wild and domestic flowers and plants. She used her love of nature to color her fiction.
The devotion to nature also inspired one of art history’s most elegant movements: Art Nouveau (1890-1914). Those turn-of-the century artists used their passion for gardens as an archetype for their work. Art Nouveau spread its seeds across Europe and North America. Much of the work was architectural, and it seamlessly transported the outside into the interior design. Today cities such as Barcelona, Paris, Vienna, New York, Munich, Chicago and Brussels remain dressed in the elements of that movement.
As a space for contemplation, a garden inspires more redefinition and sameness all at once, and it is a safe haven for quiet repose or human interaction. Certainly, Mother Nature’s landscape can be absent from an artist’s vision. But the artist who also gardens creates an inner connection that moves boundaries and induces another source for creativity.
Even if a gardener is not a “practicing” or “recognized” artist, the land still serves as a natural canvas or blank tablet for creative energies. The possibilities are infinite, and the results produce the bond intended or not: a true partnership between nature and human nature.
01 June 2006
Nature as the Quintessential Master of our Universe
Some experiences simply change the way you see. They open internal vistas with a profound gesture. They halt the breath almost as if a gleaming crystal ball rolled in your pathway. On a recent clear and crisp spring afternoon, my grandson and I shared such an illumination.
Delaware’s Reedy Point Bridge carries you across the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, leading you from city to rural landscapes. The visual architectural eloquence of the bridge defies its materials. The metal is cold and gray; straight lines bend slightly in its expanse, yet its austere beauty is evident and parallels the magnificence of those that are wedged in its embrace. The bridge’s crossbeams hold a secret: a stunning display of Nature’s triumph over humanity’s intervention. There high above our viewpoint lives a pair of nesting peregrine falcons.
The day was meant to introduce my grandson to fossil hunting, and this area is one of the prime locations in Delaware for such an adventure. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges the canal and drops the spoils for eager fossil hunters to investigate.
Our group of children and adults were anxious. We had all the necessary equipment and could not wait to expose the common fossils from the Cretaceous Period (some sixty million plus years ago). Everyone climbed the large mounts of dredge spoils, and all were successful in unearthing ancient treasures. It was a thrill, and we did exceptionally well. But the most memorable part of the day was seeing a peregrine falcon, up close and personal.
One of our companions had brought a high-powered telescope, because he knew exactly where the falcons were nesting. When the eye spies a falcon, there are no words to express the expansion of senses that occurs. There are moments to rejoice, and there are moments to savor. For me, my own reaction did not equal the explosion of emotion I saw on my nine-year-old grandson’s face as he gasped at the sighting of this majestic bird of prey.
Nature is the quintessential master of our Universe, and it is good news that the peregrine falcon has returned to Delaware. How lucky for us that we became witnesses to a symbol of America’s recovering threatened and endangered species.
14 October 2005
Gardens of Two Banks
When my last full day in France appeared, I had no idea I would achieve an unfulfilled desire. But to my amazement that wish was garnished with a trans-border collaboration between two countries of my travels.
Last spring at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, I saw a fabulous exhibition (“Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape”) about the reinterpretation of public spaces. The show integrated two of my passions: art and gardens. Europe has many cities brewing with this contemporary trend and I wanted to visit at least one. Before I left for Europe in September, I pledged that I would see a French or German public garden of a twentieth or twenty-first century design.
This holiday was so dense with other experiences that the need to see a “public garden” of the modern kind eluded me. But a surprise appeared on my next to last day on European soil, which reaffirmed that my life is often a serendipitous melody.
Joyously, the trip became a circular path that led to an unforgettable adventure. The journey began in Eastern France, moved to Western Germany, and returned to Strasbourg, France, which was the point of arrival.
This physical and spiritual route took me on an intoxicating voyage of discovery. It had all the elements of a juicy memoir: a return to some roots of my maternal family tree, a pleasant and whirlwind visit with paternal cousins, a catharsis for the loss of my mother, and the fulfillment of plans made and dreams realized.
Questions were posed. Quests achingly realized and laid to rest. Others were left to be searched and tidied.
Over those two weeks, many miles passed under my feet and through my mind’s strides. Additional inner journeys crowded the synapses.
As in other European cities flowers and gardens trim the magical city of Strasbourg. Living colors bloomed anywhere and everywhere: windowsills, rooftops, doorsteps, alleyways and outside walls. Vines and potted plants are very much a part of the European architecture and culture. I could feel my “green” genes swelling.
In my past and current travels I have always included visits to formal gardens. They’re part of the history of Western Europe, but I never saw outdoor spaces that displayed designs of “living” landscape architects. During this trip my goal had been suppressed by days filled with specific destinations and spontaneous discoveries.
Then fortune cast its spell once more, a few days prior to departure I noticed on the local street map a small area on Strasbourg’s eastern border. On a leg of the Rhine River there is a cooperative garden between two cities in the European Union: Strasbourg, France and Kehl, Germany. The area was transformed into Jardin des Deux Rives/Garten der Zwei Ufer (Garden of Two Banks).
This is a public park of major proportion: fifty-six hectares (about one hundred and forty acres) and divided by the water’s width. The design is punctuated by a bridge that connects the landscape on each bank.
To actually find the gardens was a challenge that required more than reading a map. It meant walking miles to find the correct bus line, riding the bus for almost an hour as well as discovering where this unusual concept was situated on the edges of the Rhine River. The anticipation elevated my mood. It was my last day to explore and I wanted more.
After the bus dropped me near my destination, my first attempt to find the bridge and garden was a bust. Its entrance was not apparent. I was close, but no signage or blaring advertisement shouted this way to magnificence. With no one in sight, I was on my own. I discovered a path that I thought would lead me there. Instead, I found myself on a bicyclist trail that led to old railroad tracks and a secluded wooded area. In the distance I could hear the Rhine.
After a reorientation and a bit of problem solving, I walked across the road and through a gate that produced the garden’s entrance. The first scene was so striking that it took my breath away.
Its visual effect can only be realized by standing and gazing at its innovative structure: the walkway to the bridge that unites both cities. The cable design and the footbridge defy the eye and mind. The undulating design is perfectly aligned with the bridge, which keeps the Rhine a secret until you come within a few feet of the River’s view. Lines of stone steps mimic the water’s movement and the bridge’s shape forms a sailboat-like image as though one is moored there for the day. The cables lend a sleek and modern touch that lures you to discover all the angles.
One minute my feet were on French soil, and in another few they were stepping into Germany. Suddenly, the new borderless Europe came alive.
My emotional response was reflected by the misty day with its slow drizzle. The rain’s tears were mimicking mine. Feelings welled and the effect was clearly mystical.
The bridge was only part of the treat. Each side of the French and German Rhine’s banks has an elegant garden that includes open space for recreation. Visitors can spend hours and hours cycling, jogging, romping and walking. Or relaxing on benches. Or sleeping on open grassy areas. Or reading to a loved one. Or walking a beloved pet. Or daydreaming as clouds evolve and dissolve.
The landscape is made beautiful by the architect’s vision and the result is highly successful. Various plantings and hardscapes are expertly situated in ways that are rarely displayed in the states. Flowers kiss the edges of walkways. Trained willow branches made arches that danced in a row. Tall decorative grasses act like guards in high regalia and monochromatic costumes. It was a chilly and slate-grey day, but I noticed only the beauty around me.
As I pulled myself away, I spied the brightly colored tents of France’s Medora Cirque setting up their wares for a week’s run. The grounds are used for all sorts of entertainment and festivals. It’s an innovative space for the people and is meant to be enjoyed and used.
As I boarded the bus, the gardens were nowhere in sight. They are cleverly masked by the design of the entrance that is a frontispiece to a sanctuary along the River’s edge. The bus inched its way along the Route du Rhin and took me to the Avenue Jean-Jaurès. I had this feeling of complete relaxation even as the bus was stalled endlessly in the mid-day traffic.
I realized I was awash in calm as if I had been floating across the Rhine for days. This adventure was the perfect farewell gift from a journey whose lessons would keep unfolding like the waves of the landscape just seen.
The Garden of Two Banks is meant for people: French, German or visitors from any continent. This unusual collaboration sets a high standard for others to emulate. Now France and Germany are joined by the vision of these two countries, which were once at odds. Now they are connected by a footbridge, which links them not simply by an invisible border of the European Union but by a commonality. The two gardens become one and act as a public symbol of the best kind: the coupling of nature and human nature
It turns out that this open space was the perfect ending and beginning of the mandala of my life now and yet to be. The circle extends and is always moving, creating and recreating—flowing like the Rhine.
09 May 2004
A Sampling of Sunday New York Times’ Readers
My junior year in high school left me mountainous memories, including a lifelong gift from my history teacher. One of his weekly assignments was to bring in news articles that captured my interests. For some reason I ignored the hometown paper and selected articles and editorials from the Sunday New York Times, which was a staple in our household. My fate was sealed as my value for the paper’s content escalated year by year. Except if I am traveling beyond my country’s borders or vacationing in a remote location, I have never missed a Sunday with the Times. It’s my Mt. Everest of newspapers.
For unexplainable reasons the content is sacred to me. Even after many changes (e.g., color added, redesign, new by-line, more savvy logo, service on-line, outreach to younger “Vanity Fair” audience, and play to regionalism) that are not easily accepted, it still remains a weekend ritual.
Unfortunately, many feel that the Times lost its true self and maybe even its edge when it went regional. Part of me agrees that it was better when it focused on the greatest cultural city in this country, New York. It’s a good example of: “If it ain’t broke, don’t change it” and “Less is more.”
Today, if it were unavailable, I would find it a small tremor in the ethos of everyday living. Some do not relate to my ritual and its role on Sundays. For them the news is punctuated by local stories. Others talk regularly about their love-hate relationship with the Times, but I have never had anything but affection for it.
Now I read the daily Times on-line (to save paper). But Sundays remain a link to the past and the present: the magic of each page turning to inhale the savory read and luscious advertisements, which catch hold of me; it’s like the magic of reading a book in hand. The touch and in-your-face print is irreplaceable.
This tradition is oddly comforting and pleasurable. An odd sense of community rises from the heap on the table and floor, because across this country and on other continents countless people are savoring the Times’ stronghold on the “news fit to print.”
The Sunday New York Times informs its readers through reports on culture, finance, health, politics, science, society, technology, real estate and sports. It’s as though we were thirsty for the crevices that keep us from cracking open. Its content fills spaces in my psyche and creates limitless edges to the kaleidoscopic stories of life.
Not long ago I asked a friend, who is a devotee, about her relationship to the Times. Who in their right mind would ask such a question? To my surprise, she echoed my sentiments: the hold it wields. Who else is co-dependent on the Times? As I pursued our discussion, I was amazed that she played the same card game with the paper that I do—shuffling and rearranging sections to get the desired reading order. Gasp! I had been doing that for as long as I can remember, and then I recalled so did another friend of mine.
The order of the read must tell something curious about us. I decided to do my own focus group to decide if the two friends and I were an anomaly. Did others have the some habit? Are we a homogeneous group? And what kind of focus group is a group of friends?
My own routine begins at my local newsstand. After the purchase I check to see if the Book Review and magazine sections are inserted. They are a must, and sometimes sections are missing. At home I scan the front page to check the current headlines, then I begin to dismantle its order (i.e., controlling the order of the read). Sports are thrown on the floor. Magazine section is set aside. Then Book Review has the mountain-top position and is followed by Travel, Arts & Leisure, Style, front page, Business, and Week in Review. Special sections such as Education, Fashion, and Travel are set aside with the Magazine.
I begin with the Sports, which is quickly out of sight as I attend to the profile of the car of the week, then to the real estate and weather. Next I move through any special section like the Education or Fashion. All completed sections are piled on top of each other on the floor. Any interesting article is torn out and saved. I keep the Education section and sometimes the Fashion and Travel. The magazine is saved if it is a particularly poignant issue. Sometimes it takes until mid-week to complete the behemoth.
Other friends marvel at this publication as I do. But I am convinced that longtime Times devotees are groupies of the silent type, and not just those living in the Big Apple. We are more pervasive than I probably realize.
Here is a sample of a colleague’s Sunday morning tradition. She scans the front page (a caveat) to see if any interesting articles must be read immediately. Style section, which covers weddings, is the first to be devoured. Then she works from back to front, reading the Book Review and magazine last, because they are easily transportable. Travel is next, and she begins by perusing the back page. Sports’ section s is never given a glance. Her first read was as a freshman in college, because a professor hailed it as part of a “necessary” education. The course revolved around two publications: the New York Times and the Encyclopedia Britannica. She was told that they held all you need to know. On a recent Sunday morning while she read the Style section, she was stunned to see that a college friend’s wedding announcement was showcased. Her telephone rang at10:00 a.m. and her instincts flared, because she knew another college friend was calling, and also had seen the same article in the Times.
Another acquaintance began reading the Times at 12 or 13. This paper is one of the greatest lifelong gifts that he has given himself. He loves its elitism, its (more or less) integrity. Mostly, he loves that he can be a part of the greatest city in this country, even though he does not live there. No other city compares to it, even with its assets and liabilities. Emphatically, he says, “the Times is the apex of our American heritage—past, present, and future.”
This publication is more than a newspaper—it is part of American material culture. I have been reading the New York Times for over forty years, which is a “loving” affair that has lasted longer than any other. I wonder what that says about the paper and me?
04 September 1998
My Morning Ritual
Sara* stepped methodically and slowly into the steel-gray ceramic-tiled enclosure, her feet moving like a cautious, novice skater stepping onto the ice. She was still half asleep, but the thought of her morning shower kept her mind focused on the pleasures ahead—moments of privacy between her thoughts and the still of the morning. She craves this meditative time. The solitude and queuing of her sensibilities are essential for her daily survival. Each day this secret ritual, which cleanses her mind and body, bears witness to a silent mantra, a spiritual metamorphosis and the satiated outer layer of skin. This state of being is so much more than the cleansing; it is a fixative for her life’s canvas.
Sara is Jewish by birthright and deeply spiritual, but she is not a practitioner of her religious heritage—an agnostic really. But this “bathing” ritual, which is spurred by sounds and sensations of a cascading waterfall from head to toe and toe to head, is her daily prayer. The water sustains the rhythm as her monologue performs healing powers.
In a world spun by chaotic and materialistic forces, this morning ceremony is a stabilizing and centering force for Sara’s spirit and soul—a prayer of thanksgiving each and every day. She rarely misses this opportunity for a restorative moment. Even after it passes, it has not left her, staying as a companion and holding her hand even in the less tranquil parts of the day. It’s always the same three hundred and sixty-five days a year; the rendition rarely is altered. In the first few months of its birth, the “bathing” prayer grew from a few lines to a larger repertoire of reflections.
As silvery droplets move over her thoughts, she reaches for the waterlogged, green herbal bar, and ceremoniously lathers her skin. The soap fills the crevices of her fingers and runs down her hands meeting the soft freckled exterior of her torso. Methodically, the soap moves in rhythm with her calm heartbeat, down the breast past the belly button to the thighs and onto the legs. She slides her fingers over the arches of her feet and in between her toes. This physical mantra, the lathering and rinsing, foreshadows the clasped hands and the silent prayer. As she gracefully and slowly lifts her thoughts above her watchful eyes, her body is like a tromp l’oeil painting. Is she real or a sculpted image of the moment?
Her focal point sharpens and unfolds. Her hands dance above her head as the inner voice holds court. The words push the limits of her peripheral vision to include as much as the eyes can take—a seemingly impossible expansive task is accomplished. She “sees” distances passed the shower wall and beyond the physical spaces, but she is not distracted from the words. Hands are raised in Yoga-like position, and the secret prayer continues.
Sara can never share the words that stretch over her thoughts as a tight-fitting leotard clings to a dancer’s body. She simply knows the mantra works for her. Although she’s never timed the length, it lasts probably three to four minutes. The theme never varies, but the pace of the meditation passes through her as quickly or as slowly as her emotions or mood require.
When she first began this ritual, it was for her spiritual and emotional wellbeing, a way to control the personal chaos of a traumatic illness. But as the days slipped into months, the words became her friend: Her sustenance and private place few know exists. Also, it became a treasure trove of renewal every single day.
As the words spill into her consciousness, she is entirely within herself, entirely outside herself, and entirely within the forces of the Universe. This mantra protects, frees, comforts, and calms her psyche. The ritual began almost four years ago, and has become an extension of her soul, her limbs, her breath, her torso, and her very essence. It also allows her to pray in a non-sectarian way, because she believes so heartily in the power of the collective unconscious energy. This ritual is one way that she gives back to an omnipresent force that keeps her afloat.
This “bathing” ritual constantly reminds her that the center of the Universe is within each of us. We can shore up the broken heart or the healing body. Whatever we need, we can provide for ourselves. And in those moments of renewal we free ourselves to echo life’s possibilities, day-by-day.
*I wrote this essay in the third person. Sara is not my given name, but has served as a “desired” first name for decades. Over time a few acquaintances and dear friends have chosen to anoint me Sara. I’ve loved it.
30 June 1985
After the school year ended, a celebration of generations was planned: My mother, my daughter and I would fly across the wide divide bound for “jolly ol’ England.” This trip would prove to be a sparkling adventure for my daughter who was a blossoming teenager. It also made retrievable memories for all of us to share. My son was invited, but opted to head to Martha’s Vineyard to FISH. With my son’s decision to head towards New England instead of England, the trip became a tale of three generations of females crossing the ocean to discover new vistas.
After five hours and forty-two minutes, my daughter was glad to touch ground again; it was her first air-born adventure, and the trip from New York brought just enough thrills to get her through the night’s trip, and plant herself firmly on British soil.
London is a magical city. It has the culture thing, monarch thing, museum thing, history thing, fashion thing, theatre thing, market thing, culinary thing, parks thing, shopping thing. There is little sought on a holiday that cannot be found there. For rural life one only needs to go a short distance outside the city to be immersed in country and seemingly endless miles of scenes, which are reminiscent of eighteenth and nineteenth-century British landscape paintings or descriptions in the literary genre of those times.
With a teenager in tow, you had to see the usual—the ones that color this city’s history: Big Ben, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, Covent Garden, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park, Harrods, Knightsbridge, Chelsea, Piccadilly Circus, antique markets, museums, and café after café. But this trip was much more than a journey through a bustling European center; it was a once-in-a-life-time opportunity for us to simultaneously experience something new together.
My mother had moved into the senior category and her health was teetering. My daughter and I were chattering to each other: what would it be like to share a room with my mother on a two-week excursion? Could she physically maneuver the city’s streets? What were serious pre-trip conversations dissipated as the journey progressed, and we could tell that my mother was trying to be her best.
We pushed ourselves to accommodate everyone’s inclinations. London has it all and to please each of us was not a difficult task. Sometimes we had to chose one destination over another, but we also spent time on the road: Oxford, the Cotswolds, Stratford-on-Avon, castle touring and eating as much of the cuisine as we could manage. The meals in London are unforgettable. We sampled Mexican and Indian and Italian. For lunches we strolled and perused window displays of food, which were outrageously tempting. Sandwiches were artistically arranged to entice, and they did their job superbly. Long fresh baguettes were lined with cucumbers, tomatoes and cheese. When we could not stand the temptations, we ran inside and found a table, ordered and devoured. Each bite melted over the thought from the previewing. We seem to have afternoon tea everywhere. My daughter learned that some countries have universal customs that are daily and not occasional celebrations. She was in blissful cultural overload.
In the states my daughter and I are walkers, which was fitting to do the sights. But my mother could not do much of it. So introducing my daughter to the local transportation (the tube and black cabs) was part of the fun: giving her new adventures in a world so different from her own. She digested everything with wide eyes and quiet excitement. I could see her growing with each new great or small thing.
Since my mother is an artist, we spend many afternoons in museums: Tate Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Gallery of Art, and the British Crafts Council. But in Europe every church is lined with touches of the masters and their apprentices. We did not have to search for art and my mother fulfilled her wishes, which also satiated our spirits.
In the Tate Gallery, I stood in front of a J.M.W. Turner painting, and for the first time in my life cried at the sight of a work of art. I have spent many hours strolling through exhibitions and museums to observe works of others, but this experience was unforgettable and uniquely spiritual. It was a wellspring moment that does not occur often enough in our day-to-day life. Then I realized that Turner’s use of light mirrored the city’s wealth of culture and soul.
Another memorable highlight was watching my daughter absorb the history of Westminster Abbey where she stood mesmerized by names of those buried or memorialized there. She was able to intuit that with every step we took history was not only below our feet, but around us floating with figurative ghosts of the legacies of kings, statesmen, scientists, poets, artists, writers and royalty.
Because my daughter loves the dramatic arts, we decided that a few trips to London’s theatre were necessary. Of the plays we attended, we all loved “Little Shops of Horror.” It was just the right combination of playful entertainment and mischievous story.
The three of us easily slid on our shopping personas with side trips to such notables as Harrod’s, Marks and Spencer, Liberty’s, and small boutiques. But it was at Fortnum and Mason that one of the trips funniest and surreal adventures occurred. My mother wanted to treat my daughter to a fashionable haircut. We made an appointment, and were directed to Sergio. He looked at my teenage daughter with braces in her smile and immediately had a vision. With her sweetly-edged features, she is a stylist’s dream.
He layered and cut her hair short on one side. As her curls fell, a metamorphosis occurred. The three of us were astonished to watch the transformation. With numerous snips of a scissors, my daughter stepped into her teenage-hood. Sergio had forever altered our stay, because my daughter was beaming with European sophistication.
This holiday was so much more than the journey through a renowned city with its smorgasbord of architectural, cultural and historic attractions. Three generations of females dipped their souls into a new land and came away with more than the sum of the trip’s bounty. We explored and laughed and learned together. There is little more that we could have asked to receive.
The bonus was that my daughter left the states as a young girl and returned just a bit older. That aging was not simply in days; it was in attitude and confidence. But that’s what travel can do: open up the world so we can really see gems in it and ourselves.