About digbygirl

Have lived in Nova Scotia, Hawaii, California, Arizona and beyond.

Glittering All the Way to Bethlehem

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As long as I’ve been an adult, I’ve loved the Christmas holidays but I’ve also always found the season bittersweet.  I’ve never been able to ignore the children of war, refugees struggling to stay alive in too many camps in Thailand, the Middle East, and parts of the world that have no meaning for many people in North America.  Nor has it ever been possible to overlook, especially at Christmas, the millions of poor and hungry children in the North American and Asian cities and countries in which I’ve lived.

The huge, intolerable distance between the comfort of the Haves and the poverty of the Have Nots, to say nothing of the vulgarity of so many wealthy corporations, can be a real bummer to making merry throughout the holiday season.  We can only, after all, drink so much too-sweet eggnog before we have to take a break.

So a holiday that serves as a magnet to draw families together once a year and the joy we all receive when we create personalized gifts for people, particularly children, demands celebration.  It’s virtually impossible to not celebrate grandmothers who spend long hours sewing quilts or knitting mittens for their grandchildren or to be less than joyous when a grandchild or niece or daughter-in-law buys a gift that has been chosen specifically for you.  And when we see children in or outside the family collecting toys and winter cloths for other children in their neighbourhoods that don’t have toys or warm jackets, when they take such leaps to step outside themselves, our hearts nearly burst with either humility or pride.  Add a little Bach and throw in a choir of honey-voiced carollers, and the bittersweet season, at least for a moment in time, transforms into the essence of all that’s sweet.

Years ago, in Long Beach, California, I had a friend named Cynthia Galles. Cynthia was an actress who died much too soon but while she lived, she lived her life as if each day had the capacity to be miraculous.  Her talent as an actress, her appetite for friendship, and a voice that had the power to thrill, were without parallel.

She probably never fully realized how truly wonderful she was.  But I think of her every Christmas and remember her words, her presence, her wicked sense of humour and the magic she scattered around like fairy dust at a children’s play.  Knowing her was, for me, the best kind of Christmas present, enduring and memorable.  Like the three Kings (or possibly Princes), she undoubtedly “glittered all the way to Bethlehem”.

The following poem is to her, from her, for her and for all the other miraculous people like the late Duncan Draper, who enable us, once a year, for at least the time it takes to remember love, to set aside the images of children in cages or on the streets begging for food.  Perhaps tomorrow I will again be overwhelmed with images of families being tear gassed by a country long known for its compassion and generosity but today, and maybe on Christmas Eve, I will be

Remembering Cynthia Galles

We come from a tribe of survivors.

We face each morning and somedays

endure long hours that grind us down.

Somedays we wake up smiling

although sadness seems to stick around

and we wish we were happy

more often than not.

 

This year I will think more deliberately

about my favorite Christmas story,

The one about the Kings

with their eyes full of stars.

They packed outrageous gifts, dressed in fancy clothes

And glittered all the way to Bethlehem.

 

It’s another season for giving and it’s always a season for love.

But don’t forget those shiny Kings

who traveled across a starlit desert

to remind us of the beauty of goodness

and the goodness of beauty.

 

So let us hang some tinsel by your front door,

String some coloured lights for passers-by

in the front window nearest the street.

Think about the ones who gently touch your life

with outrageous gifts and gaudy decorations.

 

Someday,

Perhaps on Christmas,

Say “I love you” in your heart.

 

Laughing All the Way (with Slater Barron and Akira Kurosawa)

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The aging process should have come to my attention long before it did.  There were probably signs of aging when I was still a “young” sixty but because the signs did not impact my health or ability to travel, I kept living my life.  I think at sixty I still believed Tomorrow would never come or that if it did, it would be pretty much like Yesterday.  I knew Death was inevitable but I don’t think I quite grasped it was inevitable for me.

Two years ago when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I acknowledged it primarily as an inconvenience that might interfere with a trip I had planned for Fogo Island.  A number of friends and family members had a different take on the need to have body parts removed and on my behalf, went through a grieving process I seemed to be skipping.  Others adopted a view that mimicked my own or were slightly more defiant and encouraged me to kick cancer’s ass up one side of the province and down the other.  Which I think I did with some measure of success.

It really wasn’t until I began to take stock of the toll Death was taking on my family and friends, my younger family and friends, that I fully realized the down side of aging might not be a “fake reality”.  While I was exploring the island revered by the Flat Earth Society or sailing up the St. Lawrence River, the beautiful Luc Leestemaker, my sweet brother and sister-in-law, a dear long time traveling buddy, former school chums, and colleagues dedicated to good works and causes had all, mysteriously, disappeared from the face of the Round Earth.  And that parade of good and noble people did not even include the long procession of elders that had headed to some promised land just months ahead of the 60 and 70-something loved ones I thought and hoped would live forever.

What the Hell?  Was it possible I would grow old, fall victim to failing organs, sagging everything and missing memories?  It’s one thing to lose our looks and appeal for aging, pinch-happy Italian Lotharios but to lose our faculties and all the adventures we had stored in our heads to enjoy when we grew old is just unacceptable.

Perhaps I should do what friends have advised me to do for years and document the more interesting, meaningful and joyful adventures I experienced when I could still travel the world on $5 a day.   Maybe I should do it before I start drooling in my soup and repeating the same questions and comments again and bloody again.  And perhaps I should wrap up those hundred-year-old hand painted dessert plates and give them to a relative who won’t sell them for a loonie in some Victoria Beach yard sale.

It all reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend, rich in every possible way but primarily in humour and wit, about writing Wills.  Since I had little in my “estate” besides books, artwork, the dessert plates and a $2000 car, writing a Will has not been at the top of my To Do List.  I recognized that in a worst case scenario, armies of lawyers might wage a decade-long battle over my friend’s considerable fortune but I simply couldn’t envision my own children and grandchildren fighting over a first edition of Robinson Jeffer’s poetry.  Maybe if I owned a few vintage Stan Lee comic books or a bucket filled with emeralds but somehow I don’t see my relatives breaking a sweat over my collection of Lucky Rabbit coffee mugs.

That said, my friend with the enriched sense of humour and Malibu real estate slapped me side the head and said, “no, you’re wrong, everyone wants to know they’ve been remembered.  If you leave a book and a note for a niece or a friend, it will touch them in ways you can’t imagine.”

Of course, there’s always the possibility she’s wrong and a grandchild will look at the Hemingway First Edition and the six foot Sumatran carving and say “What IS this shit?”

But I am taking my (possibly naïve) friend at her word.  I have had a Will prepared with the longest Schedule A any poor person has ever prepared.  It describes in detail the photograph taken with Akira Kurosawa, the tourmaline and gold pendant my husband bought me on my elder son’s wedding day, my favorite cast iron frying pan and lint I stole from one of Slater Barron’s art installations.  I figure now that various ailments and aches and pains have crept up on me and curtailed my travel adventures, I may as well be proactive, start giving away the faded Melmac dinnerware and document my descent into senility.  If the Canadian Postal Workers strike ever ends and if the postage does not cost more than the small bequest I’ve earmarked for godchildren and great nieces, I will put light weight memorabilia and a Christmas card in the mail to make sure there are no huge fights about Slater Barron’s lint after I set sail for the Great Beyond.

And while I can, I will travel, albeit to less challenging sites (to Hawaii rather than Patagonia and to the Cotswalds instead of Fiji).  But I will still travel – until it’s time to swim the moat in front of the Pearly Gates.  I will also, while I still have access to a computer and minimal brain power, start introducing my grandchildren, whether or not they have the slightest interest, to some of the characters and faraway communities I discovered along the trails between Here and There and Back Again.

At the very least, the exercise may be as effective as Sudoku and crossword puzzles in holding back the Inevitable.  And I’m pretty sure the trip down Memory Lane will be accompanied by a lot of laughs.

That’s what it’s all about, right?  Laughing all the way in the company of good friends, a little lint and a lot of literature.

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Mid Terms and Maritimers

Disclaimerseveral readers have told me there are advertisements on my site. I am not sure how to get rid of them but I want everyone to know I have not solicited or approved advertising and do not profit from it.  I will try to figure it out but chances are very good I will not be successful.  I may, however, find a clever nine-year-old that can unravel the mystery of the uninvited advertisers and will attempt to do so.  I apologize in advance if any of the ads are offensive.

Mid Terms and Maritimers

 

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Looking at the Mid-Term Elections from a cottage on a cliff in the Maritimes is considerably less stressful than viewing the mid-terms from New York, Los Angeles, or Albuquerque.  We can still get Trump’s Fake News anytime we want but we have to work at it a little harder than television viewers in Columbus, Ohio.  I suspect few Maritimers are motivated to work at it.  They’re more interested in information about the opening of deer hunting season ( FYI, October 30 – December 5, including two Sundays) or the results of 2018 Atlantic Canadian Beer Awards.  After all, there were 400 beer and 52 cider entries in the competition which means a majority of towns in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick were represented. I’m guessing more Maritimers fear fruit flavoured beer than the armed criminals and Middle East terrorists in the Caravan approaching The Fence along the US – Mexico border.

Weather reports and hockey stats also attract more television viewers up here than Nancy Pelosi or Ted Cruz.  Weather reports appear on CTV about every five minutes which is roughly the time it takes for weather patterns in Nova Scotia to change.  Hockey, of course, is in our blood and even influences the coffee we drink.  Does the name Tim Horton strike a bell?  Even women’s hockey gets a lot of ink and air time in Canada.  Our sturdy young women, in spite of formidable competition, expect to make our country proud although the amazing American women have won the last Four Nations tournament for three straight years. Win or lose, the Canadian women will be welcomed home with banners and beer and in time to participate in hunting season, Remembrance Day, and the winter holidays.

We may not only live in a different time zone but in a time warp.  An American friend, an “away” person, told me the other day that Nova Scotia was almost ready to embrace the ‘80s.  The 1980s.  That may be an exaggeration but if it’s accurate, I can live with that.  I like being around people that are comfortable with growing their own vegetables, recycling, banning plastic pollution and attending one or more of the half-dozen churches in Annapolis Royal.  In many ways, it may be that people in small, nearby towns are light years ahead of many larger, more sophisticated towns in the States.  While they drink their beer an eat venison, they support the arts and environmental causes, appreciate good food and wine (including beer and venison), read like there is no tomorrow, and maintain very close contact with their religious leaders, legislators, and educators.  Many of whom live in a village or town ten miles down the highway.

They are also very patriotic (it’s impossible to walk into a church service or community meeting without being greeted by so many bright red poppies it puts Flanders Field to shame) but not nearly as obsessed with war and war toys as our neighbours to the South.  They don’t mind using guns but I’ve never run into anyone with an assault weapon.  Maybe I just don’t run with the right crowd but my deer hunting and hockey playing friends generally seem more preoccupied with an upcoming film at the King Theatre than with transforming their homes into bunkers and stockpiles of weapons.

We may be living in a fool’s paradise but apparently fear is not a Nova Scotian thing.

P.S.

Although there are plenty of vegetarians in Annapolis County, the following recipe is a gift for beer drinking meat eaters:

Stout Braised Beef

2 tbsp. butter, 1 lb. stew meat, enough flour to dust the meat and a pinch of salt and pepper, a dozen pearl onions, 2 – 3 carrots, sliced, 2 cups of stout, 1 litre of beef stock, sprigs of fresh parsley.  Cook in a Dutch oven and after the liquid comes to a boil, cover and cook over a low heat for 1 and 1/hours.  Serve with boiled potatoes.  Serve with lots of your favorite lager or cider.

 

 

 

 

 

Age is (or can be) a Work of Art

Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis, both formidable old broads, are both credited with saying “Old age is not for sissies.” 

I’ve never thought too much about aging although when I was sixty-five, on the Sky Train to Lhasa and gasping into an oxygen pillow at 14,000 feet, it did occur to me I probably should not take too many more trips to the Himalayas.   Which reminded of something the late, wonderful Jerzy Kosinski said about aging in an interview with Gail Sheehy:

I begin to perceive certain periods of my past, like certain skiing tricks I used to perform, as not available to be reproduced by me anymore. From now on, they will reside in me only as memory – and as a play of my imagination.

 Trips to the Himalayas, to Tibet, Nepal, and Ladakh, are possible now only through memory or more often, in my imagination.  It’s not merely that I can no longer maneuver my way through the streets of Kathmandu but that I fear the more complicated task of navigation through LAX and Toronto Pearson International airports.  Traveling from Bangkok through Malaysia to Singapore on the Orient Express is still at the top of my Bucket List.  However, getting from Don Mueany International Airport to the Bangkok train station seems so stressful and challenging, I really should remove the Orient Express from my Bucket List.  If I lose a few more of what Agatha Christie’s Poirot called his “little grey cells”, I might be persuaded that the train traveling through the Canadian Rockies IS the Orient Express and precisely what I had in mind all along.

Katherine Hepburn also allegedly said, “Life is hard.  After all, it kills you.”

The truth of that is hitting home with distressing regularity these days.  Life has killed too many friends over the past few decades…some from AIDS, others from cancer, and many from old age.  Which is perhaps the harshest of all ways to “pass over” or “pass away” or whatever euphemism people use to avoid saying “death”.

Although I have had a few friends whose careers were dependent on never looking older than 35, most of us get through our 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s without breaking a sweat or taking a pay cut.  Most are too busy between 30 – 50 to worry about wrinkles and losing a step when they run the Boston Marathon.  I do have one extraordinarily beautiful young friend who decided at the age of 22 to head for New York to take advantage of the few years left to her as a high priced model.   She reasoned she could shave a couple of years off her age and still pull in the big bucks she’d made as a super model when she was sixteen.  She had taken a two-year break from modeling to marry, to learn to fly a helicopter and to spend a year traveling in China before realizing her days as a supermodel were, indeed, numbered.   Apparently those big paychecks usually were not paid to aged models over the age of 21.  But she was exceptional.

School teachers, nurses, doctors and engineers actually see their value increase as they simultaneously earn their first grey hairs and age spots.  They do not fear age or even think too much about it until they approach their 60’s and start to rely on oxygen pillows to breathe at high altitudes.  Or when 30-year-olds are hired to replace them at half the cost.

Now, while I still have enough energy to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”, I also find myself avoiding calls from friends likely to tell me another mutual friend has taken a trip to the netherworld.  Just this past week, I received an e mail from friends in California asking me to contact them at once. I knew, of course, they were not urging me to contact them at once in order to share good news.  In fact, their news was “good” only because our mutual friend had died painlessly, at the top of his game, doing work he loved surrounded by people that loved him.  He beat the odds and died while everything was coming up roses.  Not a bad way to end a story that had a rough first chapter.

Brian Elephant (1)

Brian and I had had a lot of adventures in faraway, exotic places over the years.  Since he invariably dated young women twenty or thirty years his junior, his frequent, predictable breakups allowed me to inherit their tickets for private treks in Botswana, diving in the Philippines, fabulous trips to New Zealand and Australia, conferences in China, and explorations in Vietnam and Bali.  I didn’t exactly encourage him to hook up with young women named Tammi and Candi (always spelled with an “i”) but I also didn’t introduce him to women who could identify John Kennedy as a former United States President or read Proust in French.  Eventually he did meet a lovely woman nearer his own age and in truth, their elegant trips to New York and Europe were probably more to his liking than staring at lions ten feet from his Jeep or sitting in a muddy ditch in Candidasa watching a Balinese funeral procession go by.

I now worry about friends far more than I used to.  They are without exception young of heart and role models for couch potatoes of 40 but they are also dealing with the aging process and body parts that seem to wear out with great regularity.  A good friend who sloshed through the jungles of Honduras a couple of years ago, searching (successfully) for the Lost City of the Monkey King, was hospitalized a few months ago to remove a growth one of her doctors had suggested was fatty tissue.  After a different surgeon performed a dangerous procedure followed by several weeks of recuperation, she faces the horrors of chemotherapy.  She had already experienced lead and mercury poisoning during 9 / 11 but after extensive research and intelligent treatment, willed her way back to health from the assault on the nation and on her own well-being.  Another friend had planned a kick ass 80th birthday party at the Halekalani Hotel on Oahu and had to put that aside to deal with lymphoma, hernias, and more.  A whole slew of friends are staring down a variety of illnesses (asthma, Parkinson’s, diabetes, heart disease) that scare the snot out of me but apparently do not keep them from Theatre Festivals in Scotland, think tanks in Paris, social causes in China or from work, play and making time to take care of others.

Gail Sheehy also asked Jerzy Kosinski (in her Psychology Today interview) if he found himself becoming less dispassionate as he grew older.  He replied, “I have become more compassionate, more attentive to the voice of life and more forgiving of its various failures, in myself as well as in others, but also more critical of a society so cruel to the old, sick, infirm.” “Nostalgia and sentimentality”, he continued, “this is new.”

  “Sentimentality?, asked Sheehy.

Yes. Once, I considered it merely a mood undefined. To be sentimental was not to be clear about oneself or others. Now I feel it as a minor but necessary shade, a mixture of regret and of desire.”

 Perhaps one of the great benefits of aging is an ability to forgive (ourselves and others), to establish more reasonable priorities and to allow ourselves the gift of sentimentality.  Possibly, as another Jerzy (Stanislaw) said, “Youth is the gift of nature.  Age is a work of art.”

If ever the world needed more artists, it’s now.  Clearly we should all take our sweet time before “passing over”.  We do, after all, have a lot of work to do to make up for the mess the world is in.

And while Art might not be our salvation, aging artfully can’t hurt.

 

 

 

Brian Elephant Three

 The elephant photographs were taken in Botswana.  We had followed a half-dozen extremely large elephants as they ate their way through an acacia forest in Botswana.  When we stopped to eat our own lunch, they stopped and waited for us until we were  ready to continue our afternoon stroll.

 

 

 

 

Just Do It!

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I’ve enjoyed a long, fun-filled and exhausting summer.  The exhaustion was partially due to fun, a fluttering heart, and also due to a 3-month long construction project that strained nerves, budgets and relationships.   The fun and fatigue were a result of sixteen beloved house guests, a trip to a Thousand Islands (double that number) in the St. Lawrence River, a Celtic Music Festival in Cape Breton, the launch of a mediocre book and a casually organized Peace Festival in a Young’s Cove meadow.  The latter was sort of the antithesis of Woodstock but there were still plenty of kick ass musicians, more than enough picnic food and wine, a faint smell of weed, smoked no doubt in anticipation of Canada’s forthcoming national welcome to homegrown stoners, a whole meadow filled with lavender and endless good will.

There were also lovely church outings, a Thanksgiving Dinner with a fabulous trio of Quebec Dixieland musicians that loosely resembled a stylized and highly entertaining group at a Cape Breton Island kitchen party.  Dinner was enjoyed by family and friends, Pub regulars, artists and gallery owners, bar employees, several sane Republicans (doubtless part of an endangered species), a few misguided tourists, and one Japanese missionary.  One and all were well-fed by the giant Pub proprietor and a few of the best cooks in Annapolis Royal.

A little too much CNN information seeped through the airwaves over the summer about the death of civil discourse. Nova Scotia is light years from Washington, D.C., so we didn’t experience the wakes and funerals directly. However, even the rumors caused a certain amount of fatigue and even rational discussions were not as much fun as one might have thought they would be.   Unless, of course, one enjoyed flirting with tension and despair.

Perhaps we might all take pleasure in gatherings with friends, strangers and families, even, God forbid,  people with beliefs and ideas different from our own, if the participants were more appreciative of self editing and possibly Perfect Silence.  There’s an old Gaelic proverb that advises “Say but little say it well.”  If Silence cannot be perfected and enjoyed, perhaps we could at least attempt to say little well.

For recollections of sheer joy, I need only take a trip down memory lane to view the modest summer cabins and fishing camps on some of the world’s tiniest islands, more impressive in their scale and simplicity than even the seasonal getaway owned by the late Helena Rubenstein.  The magnificent castles built by  Waldorf-Astoria owner George Boldt, Calumet Castle built by the heir to the American Tobacco Company or Singer Castle which dominates a seven-acre island once called Dark Island are impressive enough to wow a Trump or Kanye but the accessibility of the small summer cottages on so many of those tiny islands is so appropriate, so right, the diminuitive shelters may dazzle even the ghost of Helena Rubenstein.

None of which compare with the tiny 400 square foot addition to our own little cottage on a cliff.  The new, Lew Addition boasts a screened porch, a deck, a wonderful en suite decorated with beautiful Lucky Rabbit tiles (seconds), and the best damn view on the Bay of Fundy.  Future residents will probably be guests with an investment in Nova Scotia, shareholders who live in their heads, read a lot, walk a lot, play the piano, maybe occasionally knit a wash cloth or something lacking in the studio’s wee linen closet (in truth, our linen closet is really a linen drawer).   Other guests that prefer interaction and passionate conversation over solitude will inhabit our guest room, a cozy affair with a decent view of the Bay, a few hundred books, and access to a host committed to “saying a lot but saying it well.

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We wound up the summer in Antigonish, there to pay homage to the Celtic Colour Festival on Cape Breton Island and to enjoy the splendid Coquille St. Jacques prepared by an incomparable Estonian Chef.  Any music festival that features fresh scallops, Natalie McMaster and a slew of “Blazin’ Fiddles” played by the renowned MacDonald Family, cannot be ignored.  And of course the Rankins, Cormiers, McGillivrays, Chiassons, MacLeods and McPhees were out in full multi generational force.  The Mi’kmaw Singers and Dancers were on hand, as were the Savoy Family Cajun Band, artists from Scotland and Ireland and throughout Canada.  No one, of course, can outplay J.P. Cormier and his soul brothers, Dave Gunning and Calvin Vollrath.  Singly or together with his best buddies, J.P. can light up the sky and turn the most arrogant classical guitarist into a groupie.  A giant of a man, he’d be a National Treasure in Japan, a living legend in Europe, and be crowned in glory at any Miss Universe Pageant from New Jersey to Bangkok to Manila.  His beard and joie de vivre would immediately redefine the concept of universal beauty. If my younger son weighed a hundred pounds more and had a slightly more joyful and devilish twinkle in his eye, he could double for J.P. in print ads and TV commercials.  This might not do much for J.P. but it might liven up my son’s life a lot.

 

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Now the winds of winter are blowing the crimson and gold leaves off the trees and the waterfalls near our house are bursting at their basalt seams.  It’s time to winterize the house, start writing Christmas letters and e mails, drink less, eat blander food than anything Tiiu Poder can imagine, and look forward to future visitors from Hollywood and Hawaii, Oregon and Los Angeles, Texas and Laos, and other places that encourage their populations to value sounds of silence and time where nothing or everything happens.

I heard someone on television, probably not a CNN reporter, say the other day that “time is a scarce commodity”.  My grandchildren, all of whom believe they have all the time in the world, would not buy this but I think it is likely true for people of any age, whether or not they know and believe it. Accidents happen, illness happens, war happens.   Worst of all, we waste time more often than we waste water or clean air or other “scarce commodities”.  We may not be able to do much about illness and war but we can stop wasting time.

To my sorrow, I didn’t think much about Time until I was pushing 65 and on the Sky Train to Tibet.  As the train approached 14,000 feet and I found myself gasping into an oxygen pillow, it occurred to me I was probably taking my last trip to Lhasa.  I was not unaware that I was privileged to be making my third trip to the remarkable Himalayan city but even so, the reality of mortality was sobering.  I’d run afoul of age and although I subsequently went on to other, arguably lesser, adventurers, I was then and am now aware that time runs out often before we are prepared to embrace angels and apsaras, bodhisattvas, and our own mortality.  When I encountered cancer almost two years ago and got a pass on an A ticket, I thought I’d won the lottery.  Now I realize I did lose a step or two and that cancer one year WILL morph into Atrial Fibrillation, an ulcer, huge brown spots on your forehead, and imperfect balance, vision and hearing the next.  Each inconvenience carries a message that says

  1. No one gets out of this life, albeit beautiful or chaotic or cruel, alive and
  2. No one of any age should waste time.  If we want to spend time with someone, we should arrange to do it now. If we want to eat bonbons, we should gobble them down immediately.  And if we want to make a difference, whether by donating money to causes, volunteering at a beach clean-up, rescuing a dog, or electing a particular candidate, we need to get off our okoles and JUST DO IT.  Under no circumstance should we assume we’ll travel, get involved, or be happier and more disciplined Tomorrow.   Be happy today. Laugh today.  Learn to tango or figure out how to hold back the rising tides today.  Sit on a Bay of Fundy deck and watch the fishing boats go by today.  Maybe you will have a chance to do it again tomorrow but maybe you won’t.  Do it now or as soon as you can find a suitable deck and chair.  We do, by the way, have an extra deck chair salvaged from the Titanic.  We can write your name on it in the blink of a failing eye.

Nike gets a lot of things wrong but they got their ad campaign right.  Just do it.

 

 

Saints and Sinners, Thee and Me

 

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When the owner of the Mad Hatter Bookstore invited me to launch my book about Gladys York Christensen, a 1930s artist whose best work was produced in pre WWII Germany, I was cautioned that no one other than my relatives would show up.  And that if my relatives did not buy pity copies of She Wanted It All, the host for the evening was unlikely to recoup the cost of the wine and cheese she planned to serve for the reception.

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Luckily, the dire predictions were unwarranted.  A good portion of the adult readers in town showed up and actually bought books, which is a very good thing because my pitiless relatives were otherwise engaged.  Hard to believe that a story about a neurotic artist born in 1905 does not captivate teenagers but there you are.  Still, both attendance and book sales were actually gratifying, particularly since the Gladys Book did not pretend to touch on hunting, fishing, trapping or Nova Scotian lore.  I think a few buyers did assume Gladys’ biography was my own autobiography but those tales of bar fights in Thailand and parties with State Department officials and soldiers of fortune on floating brothels along the Mekong will probably never see the light of day.

Still, writing about those halcyon days might be a lot more fun than writing about the strong-willed Philadelphia debutante who morphed into the iron-willed artist / businesswoman / matriarch who escaped Nazi Germany, was the bane of her financial advisors, and ruled her hapless family with steely determination.

In any event, perhaps the book will be closely read only by her family and others that interacted, often to their sorrow, with various troubled members of the York Christensen family.  I’ve often felt that many, perhaps most plays, are more enjoyable for producers and actors than for audiences and to some extent, I feel this way about the book.  It was interesting for me to write although poring over even a portion of her 10,000 hand-written letters, preserved so lovingly by her family, was a slog.

Reading about Gladys, unless one is a relative or a masochist, might also be a slog.  However,  if her grandchildren ever read about her days in Paris, her efforts to get her aristocratic husband out of prison, and the sheer grit with which she served as the family breadwinner for so many years, I think they will better understand their father and the genesis of his long lectures and tunnel vision.  As well as the enormous commitment he has to honoring his family’s history and ensuring their own ability to view life from a global perspective.

Most of us are shaped by a variety of influences.  Events, small and global, and people that come into our lives by chance or deliberately, mark us in ways that have a generational ripple effect.  But Gladys was curiously less shaped by circumstances and people than anyone else I’ve ever met.  She virtually ignored the rise of Nazism, never once referred in her thousands of letters to movements that rocked nations (including the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement or any significant trends in art post-1940) and seemed less interested in the internal life of her husband and children than in shaping their external lives in ways that reflected well on her.  She influenced and shaped others much more than she was ever shaped even by arts giants like Nikolai Milliotti, her doting and devoted parents, and her brilliant husband.

And then there’s the element of luck.  Many say we make our own luck but from birth, Gladys York Christensen was extraordinarily lucky.  She was blessed with adoring, affluent parents, great beauty and talent, wit, and spirit.  To a far greater extent than 99% of the world, she not only wanted it all, but over the course of her life, had it all.  She just didn’t have it all at once and that pissed her off throughout her life.

It was often tempting for me to dismiss Gladys York Christensen as a narcissist but she also had an annoying capacity for generosity, charm, loyalty and courage that made easy labeling impossible.   I have difficulty acknowledging the good qualities of people who are cruel and thoughtless but I also have trouble coming to terms with the sometimes astonishing shortcomings of people that produce great beauty.  Lin Yutang’s alliance with Chiang Kai Shek, Lawrence Durrell’s wife beating and womanizing, the legion of artists that have abandoned their families…it all flies in the face of their ability to produce art and beauty.

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I remember the film, Amadeus, when the court composer Salieri rants at God for having endowed Mozart with such genius.   Gladys was no Mozart but when the gods had given her so much, it was hard to reconcile her cruelty to her mentally ill daughter.

But each of us is a mass of contradictions.  I just received a letter from a friend in Thailand who recounted a story about a reckless, privileged and protected John McCain.

Hot dog pilots were well known for their “wet-starts,” a process which allows fuel to build up in the engine before hitting the plane’s start switch. The result of the wet-start is a long flame erupting from the tail of the plane. It was done simply for effect, a showy procedure meant to draw attention to the pilot.

On June 29, 1967, John McCain is alleged to have used a wet-start to “shake up” a pilot in the plane behind him. The result was a fired rocket, dropped bombs and a fire that raged for nearly two days. Lives were lost on the USS Forrestal and 62 were badly injured.  If true, it’s hard to reconcile that with youthful hijinks.

I have no way of assessing the validity of this story.  It has been regurgitated by pro-Trump fake news websites many times and Wikipedia, not a beacon of credibility, repeats the rumor. I do know I wept my way through a good chunk of the weekend listening to Senator McCain’s family and colleagues and two past US Presidents describe his heroism, his nobility and  the dramatic contrast between him and the sitting President. But I also know my friend in Thailand is not given to lies and slander.  Like McCain, he comes from a family that has served honorably in the military for many generations.  His mother, who served as a nurse in WWII, was a role model for my friend’s nephews and nieces that serve in the military today and as I recall, his brother was recalled to serve in the Middle East when he was well past the age of fifty.

Saints and sinners.  Gladys York Christensen, John McCain, Gauguin, Miles Davis and thousands of artists, widows, warriors, farmers and fishermen that produced beautiful art, beautiful crops, and beautiful families may have been a little or a lot of both.

One of those labels probably describes thee and me and for me, at least, the latter feels more comfortable than the former.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She Wanted It All

It’s been a busy summer with great guests, renovations and endless construction, a trip up the St. Lawrence Seaway, thirty year olds masquerading as teenage grandchildren, enough dinner invitations to cover the needs of  a small Third World nation, and the grandmother of all summer colds.  And oh, yes, the launch of a book about a very complex and difficult woman.

As if  there aren’t already enough complex and difficult women (and men) in my unreal “real” life.

The creation of an artist’s studio/ guest suite in the middle of summer when guests are coming and going is not the best idea I’ve ever had but the finished product is wonderful.  Designed to entice visitors North, it may give me more than I asked for.  I told my friend, Hope, that it’s so small, no one would want to stay very long.  As she hammered her name on the door of the screened porch, I began to suspect I had misjudged the appeal of a 400 square foot space with a waterfront view.  With a

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private deck, a small living room/bedroom/ screened porch/ kitchenette and spacious tiled bathroom, I’m fairly certain friends and relatives may even reject time sharing.  Lillian has dibs on the next few decades, and then Hope, Lindsey, and others are lined up to drive her to Halifax or LAX.  I imagine if and when they all lose interest or are too weak to stumble to an airport, at least one of the four grandchildren will want his own (or her own) pied a terre on the Bay of Fundy.  The visions I had of generating retirement income through vacation rentals are being replaced by eager summer / fall visitors who may well outlive me.

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On the up side, I will probably never be lonely and as my husband and I wither away, there will always be someone around to feed us lobster bisque and ice wine.

There are worse retirement plans.

She Wanted it All, a publication originally intended to be a private family journal, has morphed into an actual book that took me longer to write than all five of my previous books combined.  Of course two books of poetry were written when I was young and had a close personal relationship with love, tragedy and amphetamines.  The business books for artists were shaped by common sense, cash advances based on meeting deadlines, and a passing familiarity with arts marketing and grantswriting.  Hardly the kinds of projects that encouraged either a lot of research or a desire to linger longer than necessary to cash a final payment.

She Wanted it All, the biography of a beautiful, headstrong, driven pre WWII artist, was a significantly more labor-intensive and demanding assignment.   About 10,000 hand-written letters, many of which crumbled when unfolded, had to be deciphered and absorbed.  Interviews with people well into their eighties and nineties had to be organized quickly before the Grim Reaper realized he and I were racing to a finish line.  Gladys York Christensen’s children, two of whom were deceased, had friends and relatives who were able and willing to describe their own relationships with Gladys as well as her headstrong and driven sons and daughter.   Their demons and angels as well as Gladys’ various legendary mentors, lovers, business associates, and disgruntled secondary actors each played a role in the long and fascinating life of a woman that swallowed the world whole as she tried valiantly to ignore WWII.  All in all, it was a lengthy and demanding project and the finished product will be unveiled at a small bookstore, aptly named the Mad Hatter Bookstore, in Annapolis Royal on August 31.

Since Annapolis Royal has a peak population of about 500, a number that includes men, women, children, a family of deer and a few raccoons, I’m not expecting the bookstore to be mobbed.  I’m hoping the free wine and good country cheese will lure a few people to the book signing but I’m not expecting huge interest in a modern artist that worked primarily in Paris and Munich in the 1930’s, albeit mentored by Nikolai Milliotti, a founding member of Moscow’s Blue Rose Group.  She was without question a real pistol and her accomplishments included rescuing her Danish German husband from one of Hitler’s jails AND turning a talent for investing and real estate development into an impressive fortune in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Still, the last book that did really well at a Mad Hatter book signing had much more appeal for hunters than a female artist could hope to match.  Unless she offered tips on how to dress a deer (first you start with a simple black dress), even a debutante who traveled by coal train to the Great Wall of China and stalked some of the most eligible bachelors in Europe can’t measure up to a really good book on the preparation of venison.

I’m counting heavily on the free wine.

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