A walloping snowstorm hit Washington this weekend – eight inches and more of heavy, maybe good for snowmen but lousy for sledding, snow. Gazing out the window, I see the patio table turned into a giant snow cone, St. Francis wearing a pointed shroud, cars, lawns, and streets engulfed. Often impassable sidewalks force pedestrians into the street – trudging through wind driven snow.
Our power stayed on though, and enabled too much impeachment trial – reliving January 6th, and learning even more about the former president’s efforts to bring forth his murderous mob. And then we watched as most Republican senators fulfilled the verdict’s foregone conclusion.
Last week was hard in several ways. Lady Cora, beloved and beautiful dog of Downtown Abbey, died after collapsing suddenly in a snowy meadow with Mr. Carson, her favorite person. The vet thinks she probably suffered an aneurysm – one of those out of the blue life enders – a shock to the whole family and a first brush with death for Lord and Lady B. Painful, so painful. Cora was the sweetest dog, ever present. She is sorely missed in a much quieter house.
Such is my mindset today, I see the snowstorm as just another hardship thrown at people whose paychecks depend on getting to work.
I write on the weekend, but rain is predicted for Monday and a return to 41° and normal winter. February goes on.
Since the middle of January, I’ve been attending a weekly class presented by the House of Illustration in London. “Illustrating People,” is taught by the Welsh illustrator, Siôn Aptos. The sessions begin at 6:30 p.m. London time (10:30 a.m. for me). It will run for 10 weeks, and I love this class.
On Thursday mornings, I join 15 other students on Zoom for two hours of presentation – learning about drawing from reference and life, and the myriad ways to illustrate people. My classmates sign in from all over, a woman from Estonia, another Yank, Brits with senses of humor from around the UK. I often wish I could visit with them afterwards – the way you do in a real class – my tribe, people whose eyes don’t glaze over when talk turns to tricks for getting the length of a nose right.
We started with facial features on amorphous watercolor shapes, an approach meant to help break down the intimidation it’s easy to feel about the oh, so familiar human face. Encouraged to simplify and exaggerate to create a character, I struggle, getting lost, as I tend to do, in the reality weeds. We draw “in class,” and have assignments to complete and post to our shared Padlet (an online classroom corkboard). On good days I get involved and obsessed and keep at it – the best of learning.
Other days I fizzle – but can be cheered by yet more screen time and an exchange with the important people in Alaska or California or both together. We’ve discovered a couple of book series that appeal to all of them (except Sweet Brother – he’s not ready for FaceTime book club). We read about Kitty, a girl with cat-like superpowers, or Zoey (and her cat Sassafras) who can speak to and help animals by using basic methods of science, or little Darek who finds a “dragonling,” and comes to promote peaceful life between dragons and townspeople. My audience is patient with technological missteps, “upside down Granny Katy.” Sometimes they draw or do Legos, but often just listen and always follow the plot.
The video calls, like the illustration class, leave me feeling I’ve been with them, but not quite. FaceTime dinners with friends are like that, too. You get takeout and it’s all simple, and still fun, but I’d be so glad to see them and their cozy houses. My screen experiences are just a shadow of what faces those who work from home or attend school virtually – upsides and down.
It’s a privilege to have these alternate methods of being with people. I know that. And here we are – almost a year of pandemic – but we keep Zooming and carry on!
It’s almost a week ago now, but what a relief-filled, celebratory inauguration morning – a coordinated, heartfelt event in the face of coronavirus restrictions and domestic terrorist threats.
For four years we have suffered anxiety and fear dosed out by a president bent on destroying the good in our multi-cultural democracy. From the day after his inauguration when we marched in pink hats, to the capitol riots by his supporters on January 6th, people have died and been terrorized on his cruel watch. He’s gone now, and on a morning spitting snow and flashes of sun, a set of real leaders changed the dynamic by word and music.
First Kamala, beautiful in her plum coat, pearls, and delighted smile, adding to her incredible history-making firsts the sight of loving husband, family (stepdaughter Ella Emhoff’s plaid coat with bedazzled shoulders!), this swearing-in brought tears and joy to many of us.
And President Biden (what a pleasure to say that) – the grownup we need – brave, caring, hard-working. Without naming names, he declared the end to lies and pledged truth. Not denying the pain ahead, but committing to pay attention, be a guardian, and bring planning and expertise to bear. You could feel echoes of “ask not” in his speech, as Biden made it seem we all have a part to play. Perhaps a constant and refreshing barrage of the truth might sway those who have been victims of destructive lies and fabrications. Biden offers and asks for common sense.
In that gathering of dark blue suits, and chosen for significance, jewel-toned wool coats of purple, plum, and ocean blues, sunshine shone from the young poet (and highlight of the morning) Amanda Gorman, in her dandelion suit and cherry red hat band. Her very presence, reciting her spoken word poem, faced our dark and showed the light – her words perfect and sparkling.
“And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.”
That phrase holds wonderous possibility and hard reality. Later in the day Biden got right to work on the latter, signing a slew of executive orders to begin the promised repair and replenish.
Last week hope lifted spirits. A genuine fight against the coronavirus lies ahead – tragically too late for hundreds of thousands of Americans – an economic and health crisis exacerbated by incompetence, but now we are led by a government promising to listen to science, and face – and tell us – the truth.
Lady B watched the inauguration, and her mom sent the drawing she made during it. She’s nine now, and sees one key to our future clearly. That looks like a knock-out punch to me!
A week or more ago, my painter friend said she felt she was always waiting. She’s right. We anticipate the inauguration (to be held in an armed encampment) and the other (another) shoe to drop. We are anxious for the vaccine – and for spring.
But Biden and Harris will be inaugurated tomorrow, several friends received their first jabs, and a frog sang in the garden this morning!
Lord B is OK with winter, and very happy his Alaska grandparents got shots “for the virus!”
A new year, and the same, maybe worsening, pandemic, vaccination hopes grow muddled, the current president still vilely clings to the job he failed to do. And it’s January.
To change the subject for a minute, did you see The New Yorker interview with Jenna Lyons who was the influential creative leader of J. Crew in its heyday? I’d been thinking about clothes, and wrote down what she had to say about quarantine dressing:
“Clothes are transformative, and feeling good can be transformative. … But I’m not one to sit in judgement of someone’s choice to wear sweatpants. I wear them, too. And sometimes that’s comfortable. I also really like getting dressed up to walk the dog sometimes, because it makes me feel good. I’m not doing it because I want a parade. I’m fully game to look slovenly, and I’m fully game to get dressed up. Whatever works.”
At the beginning of December, I realized I’d been wearing the same sweater and jeans or wool yoga pants for weeks – hadn’t even pulled the winter sweaters out of their summertime storage pillowcase. What did it matter? That same sweater combo works, just the right amount of warm (a bigger sweater over top when needed), but it is deadly boring. In the interview Lyons says nobody sees anything but your shoulders these days, and it’s true, specially here where we swaddle raingear over warm layers – and wear masks.
The day after the trip to Seattle, our next-door neighbor asked where I’d gone, “all gussied up.” That comment revealed how low is the bar – my neighbor being accustomed to my morning walk outfit, which varies only by a jacket selection that depends on whether no rain, light rain, heavy rain, or cold rain. Or maybe she compared to my “walk carefully on mossy driveway across to the mailbox” ensemble – several layers of sweaters (one very ratty) clutched around myself, with garden clogs completing the look.
How about you? Do you wear the same functional lockdown clothes? Do you miss seeing people’s clothes at all? (I try to glimpse my daughters-in-law on calls with the grandchildren.) Clothes can delight. For Christmas, I loved it that the Alaskans gave me Elizabeth Holmes’s “HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style” (Elizabeth, Diana, Kate, and Meghan and their clothes). I like to read Vanessa Friedman’s newsletter from the New York Times on Friday, and yes, in the face of other More Important Things, complaints about the discussion of clothes are valid.
But it’s OK to please ourselves – to see something different in the mirror or the Zoom square. Clothes ignored for nearly a year (no special occasions being on offer) – nicer sweaters, ironed blouses, a skirt(!) might provide variety.
And at least one person in my orbit has no difficulty changing it up in myriad ways!
That would be a rare December event in Washington, but snow comes in other forms. Last week I moved a large painting to hang years of our cards pinned to ribbons – homemade and very imperfect. They trace decades with images of houses, children, pets, hikes, travels, and Christmas joys.
And now two more rows – cards from our sons’ families fill out the wall, and those reduced me to tears, never far away these days. Not just for missing my family but for all the pain in the nation. (I’m with Bernie Sanders in his support for both direct payments to people, unemployment relief, and help to state and local governments. Now.)
Something slow motion haunts this month for me – time unstructured by longstanding traditions – years of going to Alaska in the early part of the month for real snow, and then later, the Californians coming. But not this COVID year.
The Christmas cards arrive though, maybe earlier than usual – the first one in October. I welcome hearing from faraway friends and love to see the holiday images on their cards – often including snow. One year I managed that on our card.
My drawing was made up, but this year Mrs. Hughes sent a real photo deserving “best of snow scenes,” showing the house she festooned with many white lights along the eves, glowing against bluish snow on rooftops and trees. With a lighted garland draping the snowy fence, the old red house has never looked better!
Talking to Lady B about snow a couple of weeks ago, I reminded her (I can still do this with Lady B, her father cringes when I start in on a memory of his childhood) of the time we sat in her dining nook staring out the window and calling out for snow – and then watched amazed as solitary flakes begin to fall. The conversation moved on, but she began to draw and made the most wonderful image:
My old friend reads to her grandsons on FaceTime and inspired me to try. It’s not the same – awkward to hold the phone to show the image and still read the page – not like a real cuddle by the Christmas tree with books. But needs must, and as Sweet B said: “I love to read these books – again and again.” A benefit to reading electronically is the chance for a one-on-one conversation on the side.
Like the cards, many of the best holiday books feature snow scenes, specially falling snow. We’ve already read “Santa’s Snow Cat” several times, a beautifully illustrated tale of Santa’s white cat who falls from the sleigh through swirling snow. (It ends happily.)
Sweet B suggested some ways to do it, when we talked about the difficulty of painting snow scenes, promised she would try when we hung up. Then I remembered that she already painted a snow scene with her dad when they made the beloved mural on our garage wall this summer:
And we opened a card from young friends with a terrific photo of their so cute, ruddy-cheeked toddler in a snow suit and a message inside:
Now we cross fingers and hold our breath. Today’s the day – or today and the next while.
But the first COVID Halloween happened successfully – adaptations and resilience all around from kids and parents. Some things were just as they’ve always been – Dorothy posed in her red shoes with Toto in basket, the Cowardly Lion stood bravely (and at just nine months, that’s a feat!), a Yeti stalked the streets (a perfect costume for a frigid Alaska All Hallow’s Eve), and a Skeleton Warrior (not just an ordinary skeleton) armed himself with a plastic pumpkin).
Good luck to us all – specially for these four and their cohort whose future on a functioning planet is at stake!
Dr. Sudhir considers the possibility of in-person family visits, and while I’m beyond grateful for all the electronic interchanges (and painting Lord B’s outfits has been a very real source of lockdown happiness), like all grandparents, I’m nostalgic for adventures of the past and wondering about the future.
Did you hear the NPR piece about whether optimism is learned or innate? After reading a transcript, I’ve been thinking about the psychologist Martin Seligman’s comments about optimists and pessimists – and wondering if alternating between these two ways of being explains my changeable reaction to life right now. Seligman says an optimist assumes the problem is “temporary, just this one time and controllable,” a pessimist believes bad events are “permanent, pervasive, uncontrollable.”
Controllable – whether the pandemic is controllable or not – that’s the fluctuation and uncertainty. If we knew more, I might indulge my fantasies about motorhomes (new for me). My first notion (mostly as something to talk to Sweet B about) was the proposal I rent an RV and park it in her driveway. I threw that suggestion out on FaceTime, and Sweet B said, “hmmm, my mommy’s car is parked there.” She was quiet for a minute, then said, “we need to give that some more thought.” Indeed.
When we next spoke I proposed the LA family rent an RV and drive it up here, and we discussed the logistics of such an journey. A pleasant distraction for people to whom planning (and controlling or at least arranging outcome) is a pleasure no longer available.
Creative projects can be controllable, but these days the big blankness at the beginning intimidates me. I’ve liked watching other people’s creative moves though: my painter friend makes little water media paintings that I picture as big oil paintings someday, and as a daily discipline, my old friend who lives on the island makes postcards to mail to her three grandsons. She includes riddles, odd facts, and lists the things she is grateful for. The Wordsmith grows a garden destined to be bountiful with food and beauty.
Some have used the time to teach and to learn. My friend who paints in the woods posts video tutorials about her work methods on Instagram, another friend, a woodworker, whose daughter expressed interest, makes furniture with her – imparting skills to last. My physical therapist completely gave in to his teenage son’s long held obsession with llamas, and together they built the llama barn and fencing required to adopt two llamas, Ned and Giovanna. My good-natured husband (certified optimist) continues his pursuit of the Greek language – ancient and modern.
But I often retreat to the repetitive, familiar, doable task of mask making – more than 150 now, sending them to the project initiated by Washington’s Lt. Governor and the United Way, where mask makers are matched with volunteer organizations like shelters and food banks.
Sometimes I wonder if I’d have done more creative work if I didn’t make masks, but maybe I’d just be doing more “doomscrolling.” (What a great new phrase to describe that which we do too much of!)
One heartening thing has been to see the ever-changing costumes of Lord B, like the one below. I asked for identification of the knight – Mrs. Hughes replied, “just a run-of-the-mill knight.” But the ballcap and basket lid seem inspired.
At least we can control our outfits and accessories, if not the outcome of our current plight.
My thoughts flitted all over this week, always recognizing the need to keep them corralled and forbid awfulizing. And I’m in a privileged world with work and loving families in secure situations – for now. Maybe that’s it. We have no idea what’s coming – some recovery? Or the “darkest winter in modern history?”
To think I began the year imagining us walking along the remains of Hadrian’s Wall this summer – knowing Lady B would love that. She’s very interested in history these days, her prized possession a fat history of the world from prehistoric times to “the year my mom graduated from college.” My only concern then was how old Sweet Brother would be for traveling. “We were so naïve,” a friend said yesterday.
The other day I walked down to the ferry dock just to remember leaving the island and was shocked to see the totally empty parking lots. I can read about things, but seeing the vacant tarmac startled me.
I walked home thinking about the administration’s frighteningly successful attempts to dismantle our democracy, and their chaotic and pathetic response to the virus. What if this pestilence that’s touched the entire world had been some universal good circling the globe, sudden outbreak of fair treatment and kindness – a virus causing reasonableness.
At my age will I ever see the grandchildren again in real life? What will happen in the election? That’s what my mind does – goes a little way down the path of despair, and then remembers how lucky we are when getting through the day and the month, is a challenge for so many. Countless lost lives and livelihoods.
And then my mind veers off, into dailiness or into the legitimate enjoying of what is still before me. I can’t hug the grandkids (although I really loved the tale of a grandpa donning full motorcycle leathers, helmet, mask, gloves so he could hug his grandchildren or the family who erected a plastic barrier with plastic sleeve tubes so a grandmother could hug her little people), but I can talk to ours, engage with them on a screen.
We could be there virtually at reading time when Lady B discovered the dictionary definition revealed when you press a word on a Kindle – and learned the magic of looking up Stonehenge and seeing what the index of her history book can do.
We admired Lord B’s costume of the day (Artemis, goddess of the hunt, with tropical shirt and shorts) and viewed a favorite book of his about trucks and excavators, followed by his rendition of “Henry the Explorer.”
We’ve seen puppet shows and live performances (every detail planned by Sweet B), including “Sunset Performance” – staged in the garden and set to classical music as she twirled and posed in ballet moves, including lifts by her tuxedo-clad dad.
And Sweet Brother – he’s the one who has changed so very much in the lockdown – transformed in these months from newborn to chubby, cheerful guy, cuddling against his dad in matching gray sweats and blue t-shirt.
It’s greedy to want more. Being thankful for what is seems a better idea.
But first – the time has come for a name change. I started to write that recently I saw a photo of Baby Brother wearing a helmet and sitting on a rock by scrubby grass on a spring bike ride with his family. He was drawing in a large sketchbook. He’s no baby anymore. He’s tall and smart, and has an astounding vocabulary. Therefore, henceforth, in keeping with his sister’s title, his name here shall be Lord B. He might like that if he ever knew, certainly like it better than Baby Brother.
And it’s time for a project with him. I asked his mom if he might like to do a postcard project, she said yes, and added that when he draws, “every scribble comes with a story.”
So, in postcards north I plan to ask about those stories, and maybe receive a drawing and story in response (this will require some dictation to his parents).
Lord B excels at costuming – one of the highlights of our three-times-a-week reading sessions with Lady B is the initial brief appearance of Lord B in the day’s outfit – firefighter jacket, mask, and sword, or police hat and cape – ever varied.
My first postcard depicts Lord B (or a boy looking vaguely like him) drawn from a photo where he’s dressed after the protagonist in “Alexander, the old Town Mouse.” I didn’t know that book, but looked it up and the re-creation is spot on. Alexander has a green sash, and to mimic this Lord B used his Super G cape slung over another cape. Perfect.
Different – the reading. Several friends have said it’s hard to concentrate. The lure of news is huge – so much news that affects us all, fine journalism, hard to resist stories of the illness from doctors, sufferers, the recovered. The politics of it all.
A smart and thoughtful blog reader alerted me to a fine way to read important news quickly, without having to (heaven help me) watch the so-called Coronavirus “briefings” from the White House (the occasional glimpse of reality from Dr. Fauci and Dr. Brix so drowned out by nonsense, lies, and misinformation) is to subscribe to the newsletter, “Letters from An American” by Heather Cox Richardson. Richardson, an American historian and Professor of History at Boston College, writes clearly, conveying the important political happenings of the day in an immediate and accessible way
The New Yorker has been my breakfast and dinner companion for decades – and I’m always months behind. But not anymore – I’ve taken to reading the most recently arrived issue.
And now, because of sewing and not much time for reading, I’ve discovered the app Audm – professional voices read articles from multiple periodicals. The New Yorker posts many – including long profile pieces (the one about Mitch McConnell is horrifying) and short pieces they call “Dispatches from a Pandemic.” The sewing machine whirs, the voices keep me company, I get to catch up.
A great pleasure has been reading with Lady B and her brother on dual Kindles. We schedule our times to meet on FaceTime (once the pair showed up with a big container of cookies they’d made, oatmeal with smashed Oreos, to taunt their virtual granddad known as a cookie hound). For an hour or so, we take turns reading, until their iPad is needed for a classroom Zoom or the outdoors beckons.
We are all loving Damien Love’s “Monstrous Devices.” An English schoolboy, 12-year old Alex, a collector of toy robots and bullied at school, receives a toy robot from his grandfather and the adventure begins. The two set off by train from London toward Paris, and on to Prague. There are robots that come alive, enough humor and just enough fright to be perfect.
Lady B has become a proficient and expressive out loud reader. The book offers a sprinkling of unfamiliar words, French phrases and Britishisms and gives us food for discussion. Her mother tells me that the other day, Lady B said, “books are best.”
And wondering about sharing a book with Sweet B, I googled “books to read aloud with a smart five-year old,” and found an article from Wired magazine, “67 Books Every Geek Should Read to Their Kids Before Age 10.” Great books, and Joan Aiken’s “Arabel’s Raven” looks just right for now, the adventures of a young British girl and her pet raven Mortimer. Sweet B could even listen to colorful British accents with the Audible version – listening with headphones on her “radio,” as she says, a favorite activity as she draws.
Lady B made the drawing below of her situation (that’s Baby Brother playing with trucks nearby). But I’m a little doubtful that her speech bubble contains a meaningful comment, because we hear tales and see photos and videos of a giant pile of snow in the back yard for snow caves, and of great cross-country skiing.
Lady B is learning to skate ski, but on the downhills, she gets her skis in the tracks, tucks, and hurtles around bends. Baby Brother rides in a trailer behind his dad (a handle on the back allows Lady B to also catch a ride). Luckily, good weather and plentiful snow fill these quarantine days!
She sees her class on Zoom – she tells us they each log in with something to share and the big screen fills with the classmate talking, the others appear in little boxes at the bottom. We are all pixels now.
A friend’s story about how she and her siblings inherited a nun’s habit, and how it’s been used through two generations to dress superheroes, Hogwarts students, and Halloween witches, encouraged my whole cape and cloak adventure.
Initially, the mother of my young friend drew me a little diagram of a simple cape with instructions to cut and hem a rectangle, gather the top with elastic, and add ribbons at the neck to tie. (I think I recommend the versatility of this version.)
But for the capes going north for make believe in Alaska, I used a pattern. I enjoyed figuring out the whole thing – so much is new to me these days – patterns you download, print, and piece together, a PDF of instructions, smaller seam allowances. These capes, with hoods and pockets can be reversed – but my first attempt at sewing on buttons led to buttons too tight to fit through fastening loops.
But I have a friend, a favorite, funny person, who is a master seamstress – queen of custom sewing – I’m convinced she can sew anything. She routinely wrestles huge sofas and boat upholstery for her clients, but when I asked her to describe a less utilitarian creation, she wrote, “Drag queen dresses for a coronation ball in 1979. Nobody rocks a two-foot headdress better!”)
To my button inquiry she advised me to hold a wooden match between cape and button on each side while sewing. Awkwardly accomplished and perfect!
Lady B and Baby Brother won’t know about “Little Women,” and we’ll see what they make of these capes.* I didn’t say which cape for which, when I sent them, but his mom told me that Baby Brother’s favorite color these days is pink.
Making things – such a fine way to stay inside one’s head for a while and see what might be there – but I’m probably cloaked and caped out for now!
*Addendum: One evening, after sending the capes, I responded to a FaceTime call from Alaska. The phone connected and a darkened room, lit only by candlelight, came into view. Two hooded figures hunched over bowls of hearty soup, and a voice intoned: “…and at this inn this stormy night, two weary travelers break their journey…” One figure remained firmly in character while the other soon brandished a foam sword and requested more light. I loved it.
And two hours of escapist pleasure! A new movie featuring old friends, following a familiar story (that now looks like it could go on and on)!
The film begins two years after the series ended and contains everything we loved (or didn’t love if you are an outlier): the clothes(!), the exchanges between Violet and Isobel ever more quick and acerbic (as much fun as you remember), love in all forms, new romance, family enlargements and entanglements, intrigue, a little melodrama, some jolly good times, and a surprising lot of laughing for viewers. And the house – the big screen allows spectacular shots of its setting and its grandeur! Julian Fellowes’ continuing story brims with of a sense of life ending and life going on.