Saturday, November 30, 2013

THANKSGIVING FOR RELEASE FROM TRADITION

taken by Ben on Thanksgiving
"Let's not bow down to tradition," I told our son Elliot.  "Let's make this easy."

He had phoned from college, feeling hassled.  Had no time to spare these days. Was busy with classes and papers and various theatrical productions, also with a part time job.  Had no time even to do his laundry.  Had to work every available minute, even on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving.

And I was busy too. I was sitting in the car when we had this conversation, having raced to a second location between teaching two college classes in order to conduct a library book club. I had fifteen minutes to spare - just enough time to eat a quick lunch in the library parking lot and talk to my son.  The last several months I'd taught morning, afternoon and evening, and when I wasn't teaching, I was proofreading my novel or grading papers, pausing to relax only when walking dogs, cooking meals or practicing yoga.

"Let's make this a different, odd man out Thanksgiving," I told Elliot. "It doesn't have to be a three ring circus."

He laughed.  He always laughs when he recognizes the truth in something, and has done this since he was a little boy. So I knew he felt relieved.

All right. For once, I would not be cooking. Besides, our other two kids now live in countries that do not celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. And they would not be with us.  And our relatives in America are quite far flung - in New York, Massachusetts and California. This year was indeed going to be an odd man out holiday.

I reassured myself.  I grew up in England and we don't celebrate Thanksgiving there. And during the years Ben and I lived overseas, nobody celebrated the holiday much. Not even us. Sure, we remembered in Moscow once inviting Russian friends to a Thanksgiving feast and that was lovely. Also very long ago. And we couldn't remember how it went.

I felt a little sad when one of my students observed this week that the holiday is not about thanks so much as it is about food.  Yes, there are those who call it "Turkey Day".  But the name Thanksgiving, corny though it may sound, always makes me think twice.

I'd be thankful for release from tradition, then. Thankful to celebrate togetherness differently.  Wouldn't bow down to the gods of cookery and football games, to the slaughter of turkeys and roasting of vegetables, to the obligatory assembly of loved ones near and far.  I wouldn't bake pies. Oh - all right. I might bake a couple of pies. And I'd take one down to Elliot.  That would be my concession to the occasion.

So in this spirit, Ben and I drove down to Richmond Virginia for Thanksgiving with Elliot. We more or less eluded traffic and arrived at our son's  empty apartment shortly before noon. It was warm there, empty and surprisingly clean. I gave him the new set of sheets I had bought and we put those on his bed.  The sheets made Elliot happy.

Then we decided to go to the Museum of Fine Arts and take in a Hollywood costume exhibit.  The museum is beautiful - full of light and space and we felt enlarged by that experience, spending an hour and a half in that wonderful exhibit, and enjoying it thoroughly.  Then we went to Tarrants - a little French restaurant where Ben had made a reservation - and there we had food and laughter and conversation, all overlaid with a sense of commemorating something important - something in addition to food.

Mind you, I might not do it every year this way. That would be missing the point. I wouldn't entirely do away with tradition.  But it was a beautiful reminder that nothing gold can stay.  Even Thanksgiving must move in cycles.  The holiday gets a little bogged down with a sense of ceremony and sentiment if that outweighs its true substance.

Similarly, I refuse to make Christmas  all about buying things. Didn't shop on Friday. Instead I holed up in our library, reading a new book written by my friend Anna.  I sat with the dogs and with the heater on and the bare trees just beyond my window.  In due course Ben and I went for a walk.  It was cold outside and the dogs were also cold and I was glad for my gloves.  Our greyhound was dressed in his coat.  Ben had on his balaclava. Builders were busily constructing a new house on Meridian Street - trying to finish their outside work before winter sets in. A neighbor  across the street strung Christmas lights in his trees, while his toddler bundled in hat and gloves looked on.

Later I drove to a local nursery and bought a wreath for the front door.  Then I came home and Ben put the wreath up, and then I came back upstairs to the library feeling very thankful:

Thankful for my teaching work, for classes which are going well, and will be wrapping up soon;
thankful I took up Bikram yoga and no longer have frozen shoulder; thankful my novel will be published next year; thankful for meeting the girls in a class of juvenile offenders I've had the privilege of teaching this season. Thankful to be part of their journey; thankful for the enthusiasm of dogs, for my husband and children and friends; thankful for rooms full of books and bookshelves for warm rooms full of pictures and conversations, for beds full of sheets and pillows, for cold on the outside and heat on the inside. Thankful I'll see my family in California at Christmas when we visit. Thankful all my children are living their lives with confidence and joy.

Conscious of all we've been given.

Not an odd Thanksgiving after all.
taken by Ben on his morning run


Saturday, November 16, 2013

HOW WE DARED TO BE GREAT

An early photo of Chuck, which Cindy distributed to all his students
One of Chuck's favorite sayings in the sculpture studio is Dare to be Great! "If I were a young artist like you," he might say," I'd accentuate this line here. I'd exaggerate the curve from waist to hip; I'd pay attention to the muscle definition in the arms."  Dare to be great, he tells us.  "But it's up to you. You're the artist."

This afternoon we had the privilege and also the sadness of one last class with Chuck.  Some of his students have been with him for decades, so as we arrived at the studio, we felt a little fragile. "It's bittersweet," said one, as I passed her in the lobby.  Several others repeated these words over the next few hours.

And yet it was also another afternoon, dedicated to sculpture. Waiting for creation and focus. Another afternoon of hurling out clay, and taking out half-finished work, and looking at it, and adding to it, and cutting things away.  Of seeing, and trying to see more, while Chuck in his wheelchair, asked us to turn our stands.  When he gave me a thumbs up, what pride I felt at that! "See how strong it is," he said.  Then later, when he saw my petty preoccupations, "Don't worry about the face," he admonished. "Pay attention to the body."

Chuck can always see more.  And he's taught us to see with care and sensitivity, taught us to notice how there are no straight or flat lines on the human body, how even the most direct line might turn inwards or curve.

And this afternoon, as we began to see once again, to really see what we were working on, we forgot about being sad.  Instead we got lost in the process. He came around and told us what we needed to see right until the end, when we sprayed down our sculptures and wrapped them in plastic until next time,  as if there was a next time, because there always was one,  and then we put away our stands. 

Chuck sat in his chair. And then he said in as firm a voice as any of us could have managed, "I want to thank you all, for thirty years of fun."

Cindy gathered up the moment admirably, after that. She wouldn't let it sink.  She'd arranged a gathering at a studio on the other end of the building.  "Why do we have to go there?" Chuck asked.

"Because there are lots of others waiting there to greet you," she said. So we headed over for coffee and a slice of the enormous chocolate cake (because we all know how much Chuck loves chocolate). On the cake there was a picture of Chuck, and in icing the words: "You're the artist."

Many old friends had gathered. Harriet was there and so was Bob and Mary, now in a wheelchair. And there were other former students who had given birth to children since the time Chuck had taught them, and also the students from the Friday class - Fran, Susan and Trish and all the rest.  Livia took photographs and so did Iurro.  Our celebration was full of joy and good work and shared love and gratitude.  But also there was sorrow mixed into the joy, but only because ours was a full expression of just how much Chuck meant to us.
One of my fellow sculptors, Scott, with Chuck.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

NOW IS THE AUTUMN OF OUR TRANSITION

One of our beautiful models, Livia, with Chuck, our inspired teacher
Lou Reed died and Laurie Anderson continued even though she didn't know how it would feel to be left behind.  

A few weeks back, I attended the burial of my friend Charlie's parents at Arlington National Cemetery.  It was, as Lou Reed might put it, "just a perfect day."  A beautiful afternoon.  The sun shone and the sky was blue.  Autumn leaves showed gold and green and red. We drove our cars to the grave site, and assembled at a tent where the service would be held.  Marines folded the Stars and Stripes ceremoniously over urns, which contained the ashes of Charlie's parents.  Words were spoken.  Gun salute was fired.  A trumpeter played taps.

We are in transition.  But we take the transition in different ways.

Right now for me, there's Chuck, my sculpture teacher, who sits in his wheelchair waiting for Tom to replenish his oxygen supply.  Chuck wheels round the studio commenting on our work. "Make sure the legs aren't too short," he advises me.  'Define the hips and the waistline. Keep it loose and have fun," he says.

I try.  But today is our penultimate class with Chuck.  Next week is his last. I cherish these words of guidance. I trust he knows that in having fun and keeping it loose we say a lot more than when we have corks up our arses.

Meanwhile, another transition:  The mother of one of my oldest friends, sitting at her window and watching the birds. She's in a nursing home, living in the moment.  Doesn't remember this visitor as her son, or, if she remembers, doesn't know his name. "I know you are my son," she says.  "But what is your name?" And the love that comes forth in this simple declaration cannot be denied, because she loves the man and knows him for her son.    She doesn't remember his name.

But what's in a name?

We might understand this in some degree.  All of us are in transition, from one phase to another. The undiscovered country is death, of course, and the long goodbye is  something we don't want to think about, don't want to take on board, even though we should.

Another example: When my friend Freddy died at a nursing home in Brussels, he didn't want sentimentality.  Hated that, in fact.  I called towards the end, and he said, "Can I call you back, because the Grand National is about to start..."

Later, at his funeral, another friend told me he thought it extremely unlikely Freddy would have cared tuppence about the Grand National.  It  was just that goodbyes were so difficult. So he wanted to compose himself. And indeed the next time I telephoned he called me darling.  

Darling!

"You are an old soldier, Freddy," I said.

He laughed. "That's right. And old soldiers never die.  They just fade away."  It was the last conversation we ever had.

What will become of me after my sculpture teacher Chuck has gone?  What will become of all Chuck's students? We feel ourselves part of a studio full of like-minded sculptors, guided by the humor and wisdom of one who has led but is leaving us behind.

We feel this transition to the soles of our feet. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Longbourn by Jo Baker

This novel about the servants at Longbourn, the house owned by Jane Austen's beloved Bennet family, commemorates the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.  But will it make Austen's characters ever more popular, or less so?  Read my review at Washington Independent Review of Books.