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!

Advertisements

July: looking back, looking ahead

I’m overheated and currently without a working kitchen faucet, so this pretty much sums things up.

This heat. It’s undignified, really. I am sweaty and harried from the moment I emerge from the shower, and the city is never more pungent than in these dog days of summer. The fetid scents of garbage and urine and automobile exhaust hang in the air, suspended in the thick humidity, and throughout the day I find myself muttering things like, “Civilized people don’t live like this,” as I unwittingly step into yet another goddamn subway car without air conditioning.

Some of my testiness is also due to the fact that nearly everything in my home that could need repairing all of a sudden does need repairing, from the kitchen faucet to the fridge to the microwave to the hall light to the shower door. It’s always something. And don’t even talk to me about the Yankees getting swept by Boston last weekend.

But! Sunflowers (how I love their Italian name, girasole) are brightly standing at attention in a vase on my kitchen table. A beloved friend has emerged hale and optimistic from a recent medical crisis and we will meet for a cocktail next week. In a fit of pique, I recently removed all social media from my phone and computer’s bookmarks, and am reveling in the newfound mental peace and quiet afforded by the cessation of what Paul Simon described as “staccato signals of constant information.”

Yes, life has slowed down quite a bit in these first days of August, in part because of the heat, in larger part because I’m no longer mindlessly scrolling through various social media feeds every five minutes, and yes, in part because I have to fill my teakettle in the bathroom sink until our new faucet arrives later this week. I’m digging it. (August’s slower pace, that is. I hate not having a working faucet in the kitchen.)

Looking back, July went by in a flash, starting with a whirlwind jaunt to Miami for a wonderful evening of vocal/piano duets with my buddy Joe Alterman. The venue and hotel were gorgeous; the audience was warm and appreciative; the music was swinging and the vibes were good. It was a great way to kick off the month.

Miami, Minnesota, and quaint-as-can-be Orange City, Iowa: July gig travel.

A few weeks later, Duchess traveled to the midwest for a performance in Iowa. We stopped to see a 60-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota (I mean, why would we not do that?), then continued to Orange City, a small town so charming we felt as though we’d wandered onto a movie set. It’s rare that we are able to have any real down time when we’re on the road, so being able to relax a bit in such a picturesque town was a treat. Even more delightful? My aunt brought my grandmother and a couple of friends to come see our show. My grandmother loves music—she and my grandfather were marvelous swing dancers—and getting to dedicate an Andrews Sisters song to her from the stage was a joy and honor. After the show, we all laughed and talked well into the night.

A few happy moments from Iowa.

Closer to home, July also brought a bacchanal of wine and bivalves at the Grand Central Oyster Bar with a new friend, a windy day at Coney Island, my mother-in-law’s birthday celebration, a lakeside weekend in Connecticut, and a few fun gigs.

Looking ahead, a trip to Taos, New Mexico is on the horizon for my birthday, in the company of a dear friend (whose birthday falls the day before mine), my husband, and my parents. On the docket: trips to Abiquiu (where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked) and the Taos pueblo, a visit to the Millicent Rogers museum, some hiking, a day trip to Santa Fe, and mostly just spending time with people I love. I can’t wait.

In July, I…
Blogged about: June. The art of Jean Dufy.

Watched: Won’t You Be My Neighbor (tearjerker). Season 2 of G.L.O.W.; I, Tonya (unmitigated fun in the form of a little 1980s/90s nostalgia). Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale (terrifying and addictive dystopian drama).

Read: The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, by Alice B. ToklasPerhaps most famous for its once-shocking recipe for hashish fudge, this cookbook is really a sort of memoir in disguise. I love Toklas’s writing style and her remembrances of life in France in both war- and peacetime. (I wouldn’t recommend actually cooking from this book; the recipes are incredibly involved, for the most part, and they require a staggering quantity of butter.)

Listened to: The Cool School, by Leo Sidran. Leo’s a friend and sometime colleague (in fact, I’m guesting at his show on September 6). I really dig his interpretations of songs by Michael Franks. The Rat Pack: Live at the Sands. Broad-shouldered, swaggering, relentlessly swinging bravado and camaraderie from three of the greatest entertainers ever. Amazing Grace, by Aretha Franklin. I’ve had this recording on CD for years and was delighted when my husband found a vinyl copy recently. This is, hands down, my all time favorite Aretha record.

There Is No Greater Love

My birthday was yesterday, August 22.  There are a couple of things I really love about having a late-summer birthday.  For one thing, I share a birthday with Dorothy Parker (in my fantasy, we’d meet at the Algonquin and trade witty bons mots over martinis, but let’s be honest, she’d leave me in the dust before I’d even had my first sip).  For another, there’s an intrinsic languor about the last week of August.  Everybody knows that summer’s on its way out, but the air is still heavy and humid, and the pace of the city—of life, really—has slowed to a near crawl. There’s ample time for reflecting on the past year and thinking about what I want to accomplish in the year ahead.

Wise words on a birthday card from a beloved friend.

Wise words on a birthday card from a beloved friend.

As I am wont to do, I flipped through an old journal recently and came upon my birthday entry from last year.  As I read, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry: my goals on last year’s birthday were exactly the same ones I’d just written down for this year.  Exactly the same. Either this meant I was extremely consistent in my quest for self-improvement, or (and this is much more likely) I had not come even close to becoming The Woman I Want To Be in the past year.

Over the course of my actual birthday, though, I experienced an avalanche of Facebook birthday greetings.  Many well-wishes came from friends, but lots of total strangers took a moment to send a birthday message—and isn’t that kind of lovely?  I also received several videos and voicemails from loved ones’ adorable children singing “Happy Birthday.”  Let me tell you, hearing kids under 5 try to pronounce “Hilary” is a one-way ticket to glee.  And my heart swelled when I received a birthday card in the mail from my 80-something grandmother, with a loving note and a $20 bill tucked inside, just like when I was a kid.

Later, I met up with a dear friend whose birthday falls the day before mine, and we ate cheap-but-delicious Israeli food at a teensy-tiny West Village spot, then headed to Mezzrow for an evening filled with exquisite music, bubbly Prosecco, and lots of kibitzing with an array of musician friends who happened to stop by.  As I looked around the club, I realized with amazed gratitude that I’ve spent a third of my life among jazz musicians in New York City.

My husband is, by nature, more reserved than I (he has no social media presence whatsoever, bless him!), so I will simply say that walking in the front door to find him waiting up for me—he’d worked a 12-hour day in the recording studio—was the best part of an already-fantastic day.  There truly is no greater love.

Sure, I’ll keep making lists of goals on my birthday.  The quest for self-improvement will continue.  But I am also mindful of this line from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I recently read on a cross-country flight: “What if I was never redeemed?  What if I already was?”

11951969_961581297213821_7128112368658022404_n