Saturday, February 28, 2009

Maira Kalman, Redux

Great writing + design + color + intellect + love + joy = Maira Kalman. There are no words for how much I love her work. See

Friday, February 27, 2009

Colored Pencils

I have previously blogged about my obsession with color and design -- the M&Ms I arranged and rearranged on the kitchen pastry block, the marbles and tiles I arranged and rearranged on the den floor, the fantastic blue of winter sky and accidental patches of white in Abbo's Alley, the rainbow array of my Prismacolor pencils.

My obsession began in childhood.

My father manufactured paint. (My brother and nephew still do.) I loved going to the factory, where I could watch Joe L. mix pigments and chemicals in a large squarish vat. He could match and mix color by eye alone. I loved the sound of the pug mill, cascading pebbles round and round, their clatter resonating against metal roof and concrete floor. I loved the paint-splattered floors long before I'd heard of action-painting or Jackson Pollock. I loved the color chips and color wheel in the retail stores. I loved the myriad cans of paint in the basement with their drips and lid patches.

My mother was a seamstress who painted with fabric and thread. I loved going to the fabric store with her and wandering among the bolts while she studied the Butterick and McCall's pattern books. I loved looking at her delicate and complicated designs on altar hangings and vestments, shimmering with real and silver thread. I loved the felt pictures she made for Christmas, her fruit and vegetable pillows, and the clothes she created for me, even the annual Easter dresses. I loved the glint of her gold thimble, which her grandmother had given her as a wedding gift.

One brother was an artist, whose tubes of oil paint seduced me with their colors and their slick sheen on the palette. My nose saw their brilliance and subtlety. I loved the canvases, prepared and unprepared, on which he sketched and dabbed. My other brother was an engineer and mechanic, and I loved the precision of his mechanical work, the depth and richness of the wood he fashioned into a small hydroplane and the rainbows of oil patches under his cars and motorcycles.

Now I celebrate the artistry of the everyday: the deer that galloped past my deck this morning, his coat a steely tan with hairless patches; the complementary oranges and blues and creams of the PowerPoint I showed my online students last night; the warm tan of my milk-and-tea in the blue and fawn and brown hand-thrown cup next to my left hand; the brilliance of Mother's diamond ring on my right as I write.

Hamlet said he could bounded in a nutshell and count [him]self a king of infinite space." I could too but the shell would have to offer riotous, joyful, unexpected, ever-changing color. Then I'd be a happy queen.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Accidental Impressionism

When taking photographs, I worry that I'm not experiencing a moment because I'm so focused on snapping it. Then later, when I get home and look at the pictures, a great image sometimes surfaces, both on the screen and I know it's what I saw.

That's what happened with this photograph.

I took about fifteen snaps of the stream and the snow and the reflections, each from a slightly different spot. When I snapped this one, the water shimmered like marbleized paper. I'm pleased that's what the camera saw, too.

As a girl, I was fascinated by the creek at home. As an adult, I am still fascinated. I could take photographs of streams like this one all day long. I'd be happy, both in the taking and the looking later.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Winter Wears White

Abbo's Alley the day after a small snow wears its winter whites.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lucky Dog

Max has two homes: a log cabin in Kentucky with his mother and a cozy 19th-century home in Sewanee with his grandmother and his mother.

In Sewanee, Max loves people and things: his grandmother, on whose bed and with whom he spends much of the day and in her room and on his own bed all night; his mother, whose entrance causes his tail to wag and eyebrows to rise; visitors, including me; raccoon watching in the evening and at night (when they climb to the deck to steal bird food, Max smells them just outside the bedroom door); the heat of a log fire or oil-filled heater; a sprint through through Abbo's Alley across the street, sometimes safe and leashed and sometimes neither safe nor leashed; driving on errands with his mother; eating dog bones; and sleeping abed on his back, some part of his body touching his grandmother's.

Today, while I read aloud a fascinating New York Times article about the study of unknown diseases at NIH and while my friend listened and we both sipped tea and ate delicious homemade biscotti, Max slept.

He's one lucky dog.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Winter Meditation

Sky and tree and water, leaf and silt and pebble: Abbo's Alley calms the winter blues.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Luxury of a Soak

The least expensive and most rewarding luxury I know is a simple one: a long, candle-lit soak in a tub.I've indulged in this luxury since childhood. Then, I locked my bathroom door and filled the tub with the hottest water over and over again, always emptying the tub when the water turned cool.

Now, I do it less and less, but always in semi-darkness and always at the end of a long day.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Day for Indoor Sun

It is a day for bringing sun indoors.

This morning, I learned the husband of a friend had died suddenly and painlessly in the night.

The cheer of window flowers serves as a reminder that all is not lost, for her and for her family.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Breech Birth

Here it comes!, I think, eating the cake away from the emerging baby. Yum!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mardi Gras Comes to the Mountain

Sometimes, FedEx delivers an unexpected, delightful gift. Witness this Mardi Gras queen cake by Antoine's Famous Cakes in Gretna on the West Bank.The parents of three former McGehee girls send me one each year as a gift from his law firm. I never expect the cake, and I am always so pleased when I get one that I usually eat the whole thing within a few days. Occasionally, I share pieces with friends, but I fear that I eat the lion's share myself.In New Orleans, a faculty member would bring one at the beginning of the season and leave it next to the coffee pot. Whoever cut a piece holding the baby had to bring the next cake. This pattern continued right through the end of the season. Fattening and sticky sweet and totally unnecessary, the king cake is as much a necessary part of Mardi Gras as beads and parades and costumes.

Thanks to my NOLA friends for throwing me something!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Silver Skeleton

The tree sheds its skin,
cuts a silver skeleton
in turquoise sky.

My veins buckle,
flooding turquoise rivers
under winter skin.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Piano-Playing Cat

I have no words for Nora, the piano-playing cat, and her wonderful humans.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Clump of Blooms

Sometimes, all it takes to make one feel better are a few late winter blooms, like these in my neighbor's yard.They're not in my yard, but I enjoy them just the same!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Stillness of the Woods

Abbo's Alley meditates in shadow --
koi lazily circling,
stems budding,snowdrops dotting
leaf-strewn ground.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Free Movies

One of the advantages of living in a college town is free access to the library.

Because ours is the only library around, it caters to the needs of students and professors for research but also to everyone's desire for entertainment.

In the stacks today, I overheard two coeds selecting their films.

"Mulan 2?"

"Yeah, that one's great!"

"Oh, and what about Mean Girls!"


They were still giggling when I left with
Grey Gardens and Salaam Bombay.

A good library has a little something for everyone.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Sorting, Purging, Organizing

The sorting, purging, and organizing continue, one bit at a time, day by day. The study closets are much more spacious now. The computer peripheral stand next to my desk is coherently arranged. Next, two particular horrors: the top of my desk and the hall closet.

Small accomplishments can bring great pleasure.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Promise of Spring

Over the last week, the temperature has been unseasonably warm, even approaching the 70s. We've had uninterrupted sun, and gentle rain, and downpours, and even the threat of tornadoes.

I know that spring isn't here. I know that more winter is coming. We'll probably even have more snow.


The daffodils have poked up their sturdy leaves and fattening teardrop buds. Soon,
yards and woods will be littered with yellow and cream and orange and chartreuse blossoms. (My favorite daffodils in my yard open buds like the scrambled-eggs one toward the back right of this photograph, which I took today.)For as long as I can remember, I have loved daffodils. My mother called them jonquils, a word choice perhaps stemming from her Virginia roots. She planted and separated and re-planted hundreds of bulbs in our hilly, woody front yard. In our neighbors' forested front yard, running down a rolling hill toward us and the creek, thousands of daffodils bloomed, of every color and size and shape imaginable. As a little girl, I lay among them, drew them, colored them, dreamed, and later photographed them, again and again, never getting my fill of daffodil. Now, I try to pretend I'm more mature. However, I must admit to a fluttering when I see them pop up so heartily. Soon, I remind myself, soon. Soon I'll have another outrageous bunch like these (from last year):I shall not be disappointed.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Veiny Delicacy of an Orchid

The orchid thrills me: thin like parchment but softer and slightly sticky, anatomically intricate, translucent, gaily varied in size and color (sometimes garish and sometimes plain, sometimes enormous and sometimes tiny), veiny, delicate. I have seen orchids grow wild in the Everglades. I have seen orchids in commercial greenhouses and private ones. I have seen orchids in people's homes, including this one. I have seen orchids from afar and from close up. I have even read about them in Susan Orlean's book about wild Florida and men, one in particular, wild for hunting and stealing rare specimens (The Orchid Thief).

No matter how often and no matter where I see an orchid, I always feel I must pinch myself to wake from an impossible dream.

Few things are as phantasmagoric as the orchid.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Early Height

In first grade, I was the second tallest student. (The first tallest was over 6' in seventh grade and became a star basketball player.) This photograph of our family Christmas card confirms what I remember: I was tall for a little person.

Notice that the top of my head reaches my mother's shoulder. My brother David is only a head taller than I am, yet he's 4 1/2 years older.

Here's the kicker: I was 8 years old. 8!

About the photograph: We're standing on the bridge under the Robin Hood metal silhouette and wooden sign Daddy made. Despite the coats and pea jackets, it was a hot day. My mother liked to plan ahead.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Warm Winter at Lake Cheston

A field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air. It is continually receiving new life and motion from above. It is intermediate in its nature between land and sky. On land only the grass and trees wave, but the water itself is rippled by the wind. I see where the breeze dashes across it by the streaks or flakes of light.

. . . I stand over the insect crawling amid the pine needles on the forest floor, and endeavoring to conceal itself from my sight, and ask myself why it will cherish those humble thoughts, and bide its head from me who might, perhaps, be its benefactor . . .

Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?

[E]very leaf and twig and stone and cobweb sparkles now at mid-afternoon.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Sunday, February 8, 2009

At Home Elsewhere

It's strange, isn't it, to feel at home in someone else's house?

I've been lucky of late to have a second home in which
good friends live. No matter when I arrive, they make me feel missed and welcome. Best of all, they don't vary their routine, truly making me feel like one of the family, as much a family member as my niece, Lady.

Thanks for a home away from home and for those who live there.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sun Show

For five minutes in late afternoon, I stood alone on my porch, gazed through a tangle of trees, and admired the setting sun brush the sky museum with pale pink, like a girl's ballet tights, then blush, fuschia and orange, finally deepening into maroon and indigo.I celebrate the upward gaze.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Cat Card

Sometimes, a simple card does more to heal than anything. Witness the cat card.

M. C. Escher cat: white, at ease on a linear surface, against a black background.
Personal message: "Hope this lovely cat card makes you smile. Writing this before I leave for the booksale at Latter. Just wanted to write three sentences which relate to our phone conversation yesterday. You were marvellous. You are marvellous. You will be marvellous."

Thank you, S.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Pic Mineur at Work

In the woods behind my house, downy woodpeckers raise a ruckus, rattle their staccato calls and drive their beaks like forge hammers, shattering the iron grip of winter.

The French call the tiny bird pic mineur (minor woodpecker, but also meaning pick and miner).

Listen to the downy woodpecker at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (

The photo (from Don Chernoff's DCWild gallery at shows what my heart feels.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

School Girls

In the last two weeks, I've been communicating with some women I taught years ago at a girls' school when they themselves were girls. On Facebook we chat and gossip and reminisce and share photos. They are strong women and have maintained strong friendships over a long time now and, in some cases, over great distances.

Just within this week, one daughter of an old friend found me on Facebook. We've exchanged lenthy messages and I've seen pictures of her partner and their two children. She has been a completely unexpected connection made through her discovery of my "friendship" with my niece, whom she had just befriended. I think that the last time I saw her, she was 8. That was at least 25 years ago.

This morning, an old friend called from New York just to check in. She and I met in a summer theatre in 1968 and still check in every now and then to see how the other is doing. I have a few other friends like P, but almost no long-term relationships like the McGehee women I know, even though I went to a girls' school too and even though I was once a girl.

When my sister-in-law of forty-one years died about fifteen months ago, my brother and his children organized a memorial service, or a Celebration of Life as it's called in the Episcopalian church. The day was beautiful -- sunny and warm, with clear skies and fall colors. In the courtyard following the service, I stood, somewhat apart from my brother, niece, and nephew, and greeted folks I know.

Among them were a few girls from my prep school. I'd have known their faces anywhere even though I hadn't seen them in years. Another woman, a bit older than I but who attended the same school, came over, spoke to me, and handed me a copy of a photograph I had forgotten posing for: a group of high school friends, relaxing in and around a swimming pool. I don't remember where we were or why we posed, but I think the photographer was a professional.
One of the girls in the front, wearing the white suit, smiles widely into the sun, eyes closed. The photocopy had been hers. She was a brilliant girl, smart and funny, articulate and idiosyncratic. She went to Smith when most of us stayed in the safe south. I used to see her during vacations, when we were in college and for a few years afterwards. Sometime in our twenties, she changed. Her mother told me she had been in a car wreck and suffered some kind of brain damage. Later I heard she had psychological difficulty. I never learned what happened.

I do know that she stopped visiting me and other friends, gained a lot of weight, and became a recluse, shuttered inside the little house she and her mother had long shared. After her mother died, she stayed in the house and rarely left it. I received the photocopy because Betty, who had become diabetic and suffered greatly, even to the extent of having an amputation, had died a sad and lonely death in that house. The woman who brought me the picture was her neighbor who had been allowed to enter the house after Betty's death. She took the copy especially for me.

Some of us former girls have such unexpected and difficult lives. I take strength from friendships forged among women, and for unexpected connections, I celebrate the social fabric of Facebook.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Calming Architecture

Last night I attended a gallery meeting at the house of one of the members, an accomplished potter. The food was good, the people terrific, the meeting productive, but all took a back seat to the house, one of my all-time favorites.

Unassuming from the outside, the house is painted a sort of mushroomy tawny gray. The orangey front door, though, promises something good to come inside. Enter and visible are three rooms, two quite large and one cozily small. To the right, a generous, square kitchen with an enormous center work station. Look up and around and you'll see Merissa's pots, all practical, everywhere.

Ahead from the kitchen, at the end of the entry hall, is the dining room with a wood-burning stove, a comfy chair, an entire wall of books, and a seriously long table. The outside glass wall offers a view of the screen porch and woods beyond. Turn to the left as soon as you enter the dining room and walk into the cozy living room/study with a wood-burning fireplace and utilitarian furniture.

There's no spectacular furniture or furnishings to impress the eye. That isn't the point. It's the balance and calm of the warm white walls and brick and wood and Merissa's black/brown/olive/deep red pots and the photographs and prints balanced on art display shelves.

The sense of order and simplicity charms me in the same way I am charmed by Amish homes or by Frank Lloyd Wright houses. Everything has its place.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Obama's Dreams

On Friday, I finished reading Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father to my friend Trink. After we finished, I borrowed the book so I could re-read the last chapter and epilogue. When I read it to Trink, I found myself choking back tears. I was surprisingly moved by Obama's realization of the ways in which we're all connected to family, whether we know or them or not, and to each other -- race to race, class to class, gender to gender, religion to religion, nation to nation. Another friend of mine told me months ago that she had been planning to vote for Hillary Clinton in the primary until she read this book. Now I see what she did: a hopeful, expansive vision of our common humanity.

In the epilogue, I found these passages (pages 437-9) especially compelling:

"The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality; a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power -- and that all too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of their condition.

"But that's not all the law is. The law is also memory; the law also records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident. With those words, I hear the spirit of Douglass and Delany, as well as Jefferson and Lincoln; the struggles of Martin and Malcolm and unheralded marchers to bring these words to life. I hear the voices of Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in Lower East Side sweatshops; dust-bowl farmers loading up their trucks with the remains of shattered lives. I hear the voices of the people in Altgeld Gardens, and the voices of those who stand outside this country's borders, the weary, hungry bands crossing the Rio Grande. I hear all of these voices clamoring for recognition, all of them asking the very same questions that have come to shape my life, the same questions that I sometimes, late at night, find myself asking the Old Man [Obama's father]. What is our community, and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How far do our obligations reach? How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love? The answers I find in law books don't always satisfy me -- for every Brown v. Board of Education I find a score of cases where conscience is sacrificed to expedience or greed. And yet, in the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself moderately encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail.

" . . . despite everything that has happened, those words put to paper over two hundred years ago must mean something after all. Black and white, they make their claim on this community we call America. They choose our better history."

Perhaps one day we will all choose our better history. Thank you, Mr. President for your candor and your hope.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Where to Put the Stuff

It has taken me a long time to learn this one simple lesson -- that a lot of unnecessary stress can be relieved through acquiring the right stuff.

At this moment, two closets overflow with files and loose papers. Yesterday, I took a step toward cleaning the closets. I picked up a 4-drawer file cabinet I found through the
university classifieds email system.
Keeping it in unsightly pieces in my living room will make me do what's unpleasant: purge and clean, move and put together, sort and file.

Like writing, the process may not be entirely pleasurable, but the result will be.