August: looking back, looking ahead

Last month, I painted my toenails a bright orange-red and flew to the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico to celebrate my birthday in the company of a few people I love dearly. I drove (!) for the first time (!) in fifteen years(!) and ate lots and lots of chips and guacamole. After a dinner and overnight stay at Rancho de Chimayo, we traveled to Taos, where we stayed in a charming casita with brightly painted walls and Southwestern decor. We ate our breakfasts every morning at the little outdoor table in the backyard and grilled in the rain.

One highlight of the trip was touring Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, where she lived and worked, her life force and creativity undimmed, until her death at age 98. We saw the wall with a door that compelled O’Keeffe to spend fifteen years trying to buy the adobe house from the Catholic church and which later became the subject of many of O’Keeffe’s paintings. Among other things, we learned that O’Keeffe paid for the local kids’ Little League uniforms, and that while she was not a particularly good driver, she was a decidedly adventurous one. O’Keeffe also had a long standing tradition of exchanging practical jokes with her groundskeeper, whose grandson oversees the still-functioning garden to this day.

Scenes from Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu and yours truly, daring to drive.

Looking out across the vast landscape at Pedernal Mountain—the endless sky, dotted with clouds; the red earth; the dusty green sagebrush—I was awed by what O’Keeffe described as “…the unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big far beyond my understanding…the feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill.”

A few days later we took a much shorter trip to meet another fascinating woman: Millicent Rogers. An East Coast socialite by birth (her grandfather founded Standard Oil, for crying out loud), Rogers retreated to New Mexico in the early 1940s following a painful breakup with Clark Gable. She collected and designed Southwestern-style jewelry and championed Native American causes. Millicent Rogers suffered from fragile health her entire life–she died at just 50 years old from an aneurysm–but she left behind a vast collection of jewelry and art, much of which is housed in the intimate, welcoming museum that bears her name.

I enjoyed looking at the museum’s beautifully curated exhibitions and learning more about Millicent Rogers’s glamorous life and aesthetic gifts. But the most emotionally resonant piece at the museum, for me, came in the form of a letter Rogers wrote to her son shortly before her death. Generous, wise, and with more than a touch of mysticism, Rogers’s words continue to reverberate in my heart:

Did I ever tell you about the feeling I had a little while ago? Suddenly passing Taos Mountain I felt that I was part of the Earth, so that I felt the Sun on my Surface and the rain. I felt the Stars and the growth of the Moon, under me, rivers ran. And against me were the tides. The waters of rain sank into me. And I thought if I stretched out my hands they would be Earth and green would grow from me. And I knew that there was no reason to be lonely that one was everything, and Death was as easy as the rising sun and as calm and natural—that to be enfolded in Earth was not an end but part of oneself, part of every day and night that we lived, so that Being part of the Earth one was never alone. And all the fear went out of me—with a great, good stillness and strength.

If anything should happen to me now, ever, just remember all this. I want to be buried in Taos with the wide sky—Life has been marvelous, all the experiences good and bad I have enjoyed, even pain and illness because out of it so many things were discovered. One has so little time to be still, to lie still and look at the Earth and the changing colours and the Forest—and the voices of people and clouds and light on water, smells and sound and music and the taste of wood smoke in the air.

Life is absolutely beautiful if one will disassociate oneself from noise and talk and live according to one’s inner light. Don’t fool yourself more than you can help. Do what you want—do what you want knowingly. Anger is a curtain that people pull down over life so that they can only see through it dimly—missing all the savor, the instincts—the delight—they feel safe only when they can down someone.  And if one does that they end by being too many, more than one person, and life is dimmed—blotted and blurred!—I’ve had a most lovely life to myself—I’ve enjoyed it as thoroughly as it could be enjoyed. And when my time comes, no one is to feel that I have lost anything of it—or be too sorry—I’ve been in all of you—and will go on Being. So remember it peacefully—take all the good things that your life put there in your eyes—and they, your family, children, will see through your eyes. My love to all of you.

In August I…
Blogged about: July. Aretha Franklin.

Watched: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Blazing Saddles. Classic films, and fun to revisit as an adult. Also: Karen Allen! Madeline Kahn!

Read: The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker. An extremely funny, well written meditation on poetry and writer’s block. Women in Sunlight, by Frances Mayes. I wanted to love this book—I like Mayes’s literary voice and am always happy to read anything about a plucky heroine putting down roots in Italy—but this was nowhere near the caliber of her non-fiction writing. It was kind of like a Nancy Meyers film in book form.

Listened to: Chet Baker, It Could Happen to You. There is no separation whatsoever between Chet’s playing and his singing. Chris Flory, Chris Byars, and Neal Miner, live at Mezzrow. I had the honor of sitting in for a tune with this trio at my favorite club…but mostly I just sipped my cocktail and grinned while they played elegant, swinging renditions of beautiful standards. Long live live jazz!

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Word of the Year?

I suppose the preamble to this post is that I am a descendent of a long line of prairie women and farmers, and as such, I am congenitally practical.  Practicality is a key component of my midwestern DNA, as is, I fear, the tendency to regard any dish that contains mayonnaise as a salad.  But I digress.

The point is, as a rule, I don’t go in for “woo.”  I’m not one of those people who believes that the “Universe” is listening to my “intentions” and sending me signs or messages in reply.

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But.

Every year, as December winds to a close, I find that a single word will float, unbidden, to the forefront of my mind, usually many times, and become something of a verbal talisman for the year ahead.  (I know.  If that isn’t “woo,” what is?  I can’t even type this without cringing, because I can just hear my grandmother, her vowels as flat as the South Dakota prairie, clucking in disapproval and asking me why I don’t go to Mass anymore.  Again, I digress.)

In years past, action, faith, and fruition have all been my one-word mantras.  This year, though, the word that kept coming to mind again and again and again was…acceptance.  To put it mildly, I was not pleased.

“Acceptance,” I thought, was rather too closely aligned with “defeat,” or at least “surrender.”  And what exactly was I to accept, anyway?  I mean, I have practicing to do, weight to lose, and career milestones to hit.  No.  Another word, please.  ANOTHER WORD.  Try as I might, though, I couldn’t come up with another word that carried the resonance of “acceptance,” so I began to explore what acceptance might mean for me in this new year.

ba78f14d1dd1068111fdfd5185af3d74What would it feel like to accept, rather than fight, the hilariously obvious reality that I am older now, and trying to regain the physique I had ten years ago would not only be a battle, it would be a perpetually losing one?  My life a decade ago was one of waiting tables, climbing the stairs of a fifth-floor walkup multiple times a day, and never cooking at home (let alone hosting dinner parties, which is one of my favorite things to do).  What would it feel like to just work out because it feels good?  What if I just accepted my body exactly the way it is, without any apologies or complaints, and decided to just wear my swimsuit and have a great fucking time at the beach?

What if I decided that my career is fine just the way it is, with some gigs that are fancy and exciting, and other gigs that are not at all glamorous, but are nonetheless opportunities to sing and be surrounded by musicians, some of my favorite people on the planet?  What if the things that seem effortless for so many of my singer friends—harmony, form, improvisation—will never, ever come easily to me, and that’s okay?  

Well, we’re a few weeks into 2016 by now, and I can, unequivocally, tell you this: embracing “acceptance” as my one-word touchstone has been a goddamn revelation.  I am here and it is now.  Neither my body nor my musicality can be described as “perfect” (whatever that even means), but nonetheless, I’m going to show up every day and do the best I can with what I’ve been given.

Here’s a little secret that I didn’t know when the word “acceptance” stubbornly insisted on being my North Star for 2016: acceptance is more about self-love and kindness than it is about defeat or surrender. Choosing to better the things I can and be at peace with what is immutable is, as it turns out, right in line with the pragmatism that is my midwestern birthright.  Perhaps my grandmother would not be clucking in disapproval, after all.

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You’ve gotta love a girl with a healthy appetite.

Thanks to Nora Ephron’s film, Julie & Julia, we’re experiencing something of a Julia Child Renaissance. Ephron’s movie, at least the half starring Meryl Streep, sparkles with Child’s vivacity and enthusiasm as she forges her identity as America’s most beloved chef.

my-life-in-franceThe “Julia” half of Julie & Julia is based on Julia Child’s autobiography, My Life in France, which remains perhaps the most inspiring treatise on creativity and living life to the fullest that I’ve ever read. Full disclosure: any book in which a plucky American pulls up stakes and makes a home in a foreign land (particularly a foreign land in which a romance language is spoken), absorbs the “local color,” and eats and drinks with zeal is my literary equivalent of porn.

Unconstrained by cultural and social norms of the day, Julia Child married a man ten years her senior in 1946, at the age of 34. Her relationship with her husband, Paul, was one of two equals–friends–who encouraged one another personally and professionally for nearly 50 years. She was 37 years old when she began attending the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school. 37! In our youth-obsessed culture, the thought of beginning to learn our life’s work in our late 30s seems daunting, yet Julia did just that–and went on to become an icon.

Julia didn’t really seem to have a plan, per se, but she had something far better: she was possessed of a “Well, what’s the worst that could happen?” attitude and a real taste for adventure. Once immersed in whatever task was before her, though, Child worked tirelessly, settling for nothing less than excellence.

Of course Child’s account of her life in post-war Paris is picturesque and romantic, and her reminiscences about French food, in all its glory, are just heaven. But for me, the most compelling aspect of My Life in France is Child’s enthusiasm for life itself. In her 80s, Julia’s husband died, as did her longtime friend and collaborator, Simone Beck. Child relinquished her beloved house in Provence and pondered the next chapter of her life:

“Now I was moving forward again, into new experiences, in new places, with new people. There was still so much to learn and do–articles and books to write, perhaps another TV show or two to try. I wanted to go lobster-fishing in Maine, visit a Chicago slaughterhouse, teach kids how to cook…In short, my appetite had not diminished!…the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite…”

julia-child-with-rolling-pinsJulia Child had a marvelously long, rich, colorful life, but not an easy one. She lived through the Great Depression and WWII, she had a contentious relationship with her father, she yearned for a child but her efforts, as she put it, “didn’t take,” and her legendary status in the culinary field came after many setbacks and rejections. Yet her passion and curiosity remained undiminished through the end of her life. What a powerful example. Bon appetit, indeed!

There’s no place like home?

My maternal grandmother died this year at 89 (89!) years old.  We were pretty tight and I miss her.  She was kind of a complicated lady, full of contradictions: she could be really needy, but underneath, the woman was made of steel.  She was a Lady-with-a-capital-L but loved gambling and took to swearing rather colorfully in her 80s.  I related to her a lot, except I took to swearing rather colorfully at about age 10.

My grandmother was a Midwestern German Catholic, which meant she didn’t do—or tolerate—much wallowing or whining.  She’d adopted the expression “Uff-da!” from my Norwegian grandfather and her flat South Dakota vowels made the cast of “Fargo” sound like amateurs.

When my grandfather died several years ago, she missed him terribly.  But my grandmother did what prairie women do: she laced up her proverbial boots, pulled herself up and got on with her life.  She said she talked to him in the morning while she had her coffee. 

She was matter-of-fact about her grief, I suspect because there simply aren’t words to describe losing your husband of over 60 years.  My grandmother was not sentimental, nor was she a bullshitter, so her simple words, “I miss my man,” as her cane guided her through the cemetery, reverberated loudly in my heart.

I am scared shitless of dying.  I wish I could be more Earth-Mother-y and Zen about it, but the fact is, when I imagine that last moment, that last breath, that huge void of not knowing…cue tunnel vision, shallow breathing, and claustrophobia.  I’ve had more than one panic attack on the subway.  And for all her years of devout Catholicism, I always kind of had the feeling that my grandmother was as afraid of death as I.  But now I’m not so sure.

See, my grandmother showed up in my dream last night. She seemed to be crocheting beside a hospital bed.  Someone (one of her parents, or perhaps my grandfather) was asleep in the bed while we talked.  I asked her if she’d been afraid to die.

With her signature Midwestern accent, and clicking her tongue the way she always did, she replied, “Oh, no, never afraid.  My parents worked so hard all their lives to make sure I was okay.  It’s exciting for me to be able to make sure they’re okay, now that we’re home.”   I guess by “home,” she meant “Heaven” or some sort of afterlife. 

It’s possible that I had some sort of mystical encounter with my grandmother in my dream.  It’s also possible that my mind was just wandering in deep REM sleep.  But the magic of the message stays the same: my grandmother is always with me, in my heart and memory.  And who knows?  Maybe there is someone waiting to make sure we’re okay when, someday, we go “home.”  Looking_at_Photos