Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.
On this Small Business Saturday, if you find yourself struggling for a gift for that new married couple, matriarch/patriarch or person who has zero storage space, consider a generational gift like a family crest (which also gives you personalized gift ideas from local artisans for years to come!).
We have now arrived at one of my favorite times of year: Christmas card time! I love every part of it (except the bit where I send about 150 of them): finding the perfect picture, picking the ink for the envelopes, spending a few moments thinking of the friends I love as I address their cards and write them a note with my thoughts and wishes for them. But my very favorite moment is the sealing of the card, when I take my family crest embossed on a gold notary seal and put a benediction on my prayer to and for them.
The seal is one of the three places on my Christmas cards that my family crest appears this year, and it’s similarly salted through my house. The crest was designed by Fealty Design – the brainchild of my creative friend Julie. (Actually, so were the Christmas Cards and Mocksgiving Cards, but that’s a secret between you and me, right?) She’s a creative director and brand designer, and her favorite part of the design process is taking the time to understand what’s important, and show that in a design. She founded Fealty Design as a way to do more of that creation process she delights in!
I’ve had my crest for about three years, and taken particular delight in finding new ways to use it, especially ones that make opportunities to work with small artisans and artists. One of favorites in that regard is the stained glass window we had custom made to fit our picture window by Barbara Conners. She executed Fealty’s design superbly – and came to our house to fit it in the window. (Unfortunately, the window is now a new size, but that’s a problem for another day.) This window would have originally had stained glass, but it burned in 1947. Putting this window back to the way it should be – only for us – was a deeply satisfying result. And it wouldn’t have been possible or as meaningful without our family design!
My other favorite craftsman job is this Camping Sign. These kinds of family markers are common among the family campgrounds in the White Mountains. They include cast iron pans with paint, gifts from grandkids made in shop, or the work of master craftsman now retired. I have wanted a camping sign for some time, and Adam came through with a version done in our crest. To our surprise and delight, the best qualified craftsman for this custom project was just down the street: SignMeUpCustomSigns.com He actually dropped the sign off in person, and showed off the marine grade lacquer and craftsmanship. He said his homemade CNC machine is big enough to do a standard sized door.
In the lowest budget version of this, it turns out the vinyl stickers are amazing for … everything. Every thermos and water bottle in our house is marked with a shockingly dishwasher safe sticker, ensuring that anyone who finds the lost objects enjoys their lovely decor and personalization. (OK, and there’s a very outside chance we get it back.) My kids often ask for a Flynn sticker for a device, book or thing they don’t want to share. It feels surprisingly spiffy to have your own stickers!
Tell me – what gifts have you gotten that still bring you joy years later? Which ones lead themselves to ongoing themes and years of additional simplified and meaningful gifts? What especially marks you and your family?
In 2012, back when I was young and the world was a different place, I planted a plum tree in my back yard. I had a dream – a vision – of finally making damson plum jam. This after years of scouring farmer’s markets and orchards for the rare English plum. It was audacious, to decide to commit to a mini-orchard in my plucky and not super bright tenth of an acre of land, but I try not to be limited by common sense too often. The story of my plum tree is familiar to many of you, since it might be just about the most written about topic in my desultory blog. There was one memorable year when the lectionary had the story of Jesus and the fig tree and no fewer than three pastors of my acquaintance asked my permission to use my bitter, hopeless plum journey as a sermon inspiration. Oh pastors, consider this permission to use anything I put on my blog in your sermons.
And then I waited, while the tree grew. I discovered a saying “You plant a plum tree for your children, but a damson tree for your grandchildren.”* For years it flowered abundantly and never fruited once. It was lovely, but so far barren. I upped my game, my fertilizer use, and on one memorable night even rigged up a space heater as a suburban smudge pot to prevent a die-off when winter had one last late fusillade for us.
In 2018, I got really excited. There were all these little plumlets! Thousands! Tens of thousands! Even a 5 or 10% survival rate, and I’d be swimming in plums. I began looking up recipes for plum wine, plum sauce and plum puddings. But when we walk through a forest of acorns, it is a warning to us about how rare the success of life is in the face of the cruelty of nature and chance. By ones, and in great bunches, through every stage of life, I watched my plums fail. In the year of my greatest harvest, I had many hopes, but only in the end three plums, which I ate late – not understanding that my tree ripened to gold instead of purple plums. (Dammit, I’d bought a purple plum tree!)
Then, that winter, I discovered the first knot of the blight that will kill my tree. Instead of having planting a gracious tree that will bring fruit to the world for the rest of my life, and for many years thereafter, I have planted this tree and I will watch it die. And worse, I will never get a single batch of jam out of the damn thing. I fought it of course, as we do mortality. I pruned and I fertilized and I read up on it. On the afternoon we learned a friend had two weeks to live, my husband couldn’t understand why I had to cut off the blackened cancerous growths RIGHT THEN. But from this vantage, both you and I can see it. This tree is not a garden object. It is a metaphor for life, for longing, for generations, and for mortality.
I have come to a point, now, where I have passed through the phases of denial and bargaining in my grief for this tree – this metaphor for mortality. I no longer expect to eat a fruit from its branches. I do not believe I will be able to pull it through, or that miraculous healing is possible. I did not cut away the black places this summer – there are too many and they are too high to reach. I let the tree be, and only cut away the branches that made it hard to sit around it.
This moment of acceptance has in some ways freed me. While I planted the tree for fruit, in this long hot summer, when we spent so much time in the back yard, I came to love the tree for the shade it gave. I spent days sitting below its branches, sheltered under gracious leaves. The tree is home to an entire ecosystem of ants and bees and aphids and ladybugs. I admire its enormous elasticity, as when weighted by snow it will bend halfway to the ground and then spring back to the sky once it has dried off. I love the glorious puffy white blossoms it still bravely throws against new-blue skies in spring. Now that I have stopped expecting more, I can love it for what it is, for as long as I still have my friend.
I will not, however, have this tree much longer. It is hard to watch it blacken and wither. And our yard is small to be home to a dying tree for very long.
So I had a choice. I could give up on a foolish, childish dream of fruit. This is tempting. There is no argument that my attachment to this tree and this hope is a sensible one. I know that any other plum I plant would likely suffer a similar fate – this blight will likely linger in soil and suckered-sprout for years yet. Our land is not appropriate for orchards. I have no skills or abilities to raise a healthy tree. I should just go buy my fruit like a normal American. I can feel the weight of the pressure to just be normal already. To not care so much about things that are so stupid. To pretend to myself and the world that this is just a tree like any other, and use it as an opportunity to teach my kids how to use a chain saw. Maybe put in a nice patio or something, with a sun umbrella.
Or. I could double down on crazypants dreams. I could pull out the core of my desires and longing, and find another way to express them. Maybe buy a tract of land without this problem? What if there’s a saleable set of orchard already growing? Do you think Farmer Dave would let me, like, sponsor a tree? Could I plant one at Camp Wilmot? Guerilla gardening along the greenway?
Then, there came a moment when I suddenly knew exactly what to do. I myself do not understand the genesis of this idea – the germination or pieces that went into its creation. I do not know how I knew these things. But I knew … I had to plant a pawpaw tree. I’m working on my patter for “What the heck is a pawpaw?” The pawpaw is the largest native north American fruit. You possibly might vaguely remember having heard of it through songs like “The Pawpaw Patch“. It is slightly larger than apple sized, has a thick skin and a few big seeds, and the fruit is described as a citrusy custard – like a cross between a banana and a mango. It’s been grown in America since before we colonists arrived. Although Massachusetts would have been traditionally too far north for its zone, with the change in our climate we are now warm enough to host it. The reason you’ve never heard of it isn’t because it isn’t delicious. It’s because there aren’t any varietals of pawpaw that are durable enough and last long enough to survive the American Corporate Food Chain. It doesn’t ripen once picked, is very fragile, and only lasts about 5 days after it ripens. So you just can’t pick it, pack it, ship it, stock it and eat it in time. It is an unbuyable, historic fruit. In other words, absolutely perfect for me.
There are two practical considerations. The first is that TWO pawpaws in the area are required in order to get any live fruit. I can’t find any self-pollinating varietals. This is a challenge since I have a paucity of pawpaw space. I have a plan, but if any of my neighbors would be willing to plant a tree, I’d happily buy it, plant it and tend it for you! (JAY THIS MEANS YOU. YOU ALREADY TOLD ME YOU READ THIS SO HA HA YOU CAN’T PRETEND YOU DIDN’T SEE!)
The second is that the tree, in its early years, really requires shade to grow. It’s best planted underneath a mature tree, until it gets its feet under it and begins to shoot up. So the best place for it is in the shade of my dying plum tree. And here we return again to our mortality allegory. To be dying is not to be dead. There are still gifts that we can give and receive, after any hope of fruit is past. I will ask my beloved plum for another year or two of shade, blossoms and the gracious hosting of life. I will give it fertilizer, water, and compost for its nourishment, as well as my unabated love. And in in return, I hope that it holds on to strength and life long enough to give the live-giving gift of shade to the next generation.
I print photo calendars as Christmas presents for family, helpfully including birthday, anniversaries, and holidays. So it is that I know roughly a year in advance exactly when Mocksgiving and Piemas will fall, since I actually print them on the calendar. I used to have friends pinging me in July to check the dates and get the early bird fares.
So it is that I know with great certainty that in any other circumstance, today would be Mocksgiving. It’s 1:15 as I write, so at this moment the house should be filled with the aroma of a slow-cooking turkey, the remnants of glorious stuffing smell. I’d have the pots of potatoes and butternut squash prepped and on the stove. The porch would have five pies and five loaves of bread, and Adam would be setting up the bar. Half the furniture in the house would be moved and every one of the many table settings and chairs I have in the basement would be up and dusted. Often BJ would be at the table, talking to me while I cooked.
But it’s 2020. We’re moving furniture, but only as we put the house back together after our big window/living room project. The only people dining here tonight are the four of us Flynns (granted, with two of them being adolescent boys, the amount of appetite is like six, but still). There is no gathering, or feeding, or drinking, or board games, or catching up with people you see every year, but only once or twice. I knew today would be a hard day for me – harder than Thanksgiving – when it started becoming clear that there was no gathering small enough to be safe in the current environment.
So I decided to replace my love of feeding people with my love of sending people letters. I worked with Fealty Design (who designed our family crest) to put together a package of recipe cards from my little Mocksgiving cheat sheet document plus pictures of some of the 20 Mocksgiving celebrations I’ve hosted. And I sent most of them out late last week (although it took me a while to track down some addresses, and some I’m still missing).
I miss you guys so much. I miss writing a “live blog” of the prep, either for real, or only in my head. I miss gathering and hugging and the heat of many people and the sounds of laughter drifting up and down floors. I miss the 20 minutes after I’m done cooking and before the guests come where I transform from dumpy cook to glamorous hostess. We’ve all been alone so long, I find myself not really believing such days will ever come again, although with the recent vaccine news next Mocksgiving is not a Fool’s Hope. (Next Piemas probably is.)
Anyway, assuming you miss these things too, I have a few things for you. First, here’s a downloadable PDF of the recipe/picture cards. They’re designed to be printed on 5×7 cards, in case you want them. (If you don’t know how to reach me, just add a comment and I’ll reach out to you!) I also have quite a few extras – send me your address and I’d be happy to share!
Second, I put together an album of Mocksgivings through the years (although I haven’t gotten around to scanning the first two years yet). I’d love additions from attendees who might have taken pictures!
Here’s looking forward to next year, when we can turkey together once more!
Probably most of you know by now that Camp Wilmot is one of the most important places in my kids’ life – and by extension mine! In September, the Camp hosted a “Walk to Scotland” to raise money and guarantee they can be back to hosting kids in nature, celebrating the glory of creation (and the Creator!) I’m proud to let you know that I was the top walker, logging 156.2 miles. I’d love to also be a top fund-raiser for this program I’m so very impressed by, and which means so much to the kids I love!
So if you’d like to sponsor my walk, here’s the link. You can give anywhere from a dime a mile, to ten bucks a mile (well, I won’t stop you from giving more!)
Donations can be made either by sending a check marked with donation to Camp Wilmot for Walk for Scotland. Please also indicate if it’s for a team or individual. Camp Wilmot, 5 Whites Pond Road, Wilmot, NH, 03287.
Some reasons I give to Camp Wilmot:
Half of their kids attend using “Camperships” – Camp Wilmot works hard to make sure it’s available to kids from all backgrounds
Half of the kids attending don’t have a church community. This is one of the only times they’ll hear that they are loved by God, as well as by the great staff who spend their summers loving and teaching these kids
Camp Wilmot continues to grow in the number of kids it serves and the ways it serves them. In the years since we’ve been associated, they’ve more than doubled the number of weeks they’re open, added winter weekends and fall check-ins, and were increasing to monthly gatherings for kids in the off season.
The camp is led by “alumni” who grew up loving it and have spent their young-adulthoods making sure it thrived. They’re already looking to the future, and inviting the teens to take an active role in making sure Camp Wilmot continues to be by and for these young people in nature.
This is one of the most thrifty not-for-profits I’ve ever seen. They know how to do amazing things with small resources. I love that they are also teaching kids to appreciate their gifts and make full use of what they have!
*I just have to say that the day BEFORE the Scotland walking started, I logged a 20 mile day walking (and running) the trail to Owl’s Head
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.
Great is Thy Faithfulness
I planted bulbs today. It might be possible to plant bulbs and not wax philosophical, but I’ve never pulled off such a feat. There are few acts of faith quite like the planting of a bulb. Here, in the waning of the year, when the last brilliant burst of color paints our hills and views before the monochrome eternity of winter overtakes us, I knelt in the fading sun and dug into the mulch and compost I had laid down this summer. Even at the moment of digging, I was building on what I had already begun – the beds I had laid out, the depth of the soil loose over the hard rocks. And with the light slanting so strongly as to throw shadows at noon, I buried the bulbs and covered them – and it was as though they had never been there.
When my work was complete, the world LOOKED the same as it had before, or maybe even worse. A detritus of bulb-papers covered the ground, and the mulch and soil were irrevocably mixed. The casual observer might think nothing at all had changed. And so it will remain for the rest of the year, and well into the following. We will pass Halloween, and the election, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years. We will walk into whatever 2021 holds for us, and work well into the year. And then there will be a day where the dirty snow has receded and the warmest part of the garden, where the sun falls first, will show the first sign of my labors with a small, green glimmer. What happens next varies greatly on the year. If we get a warm spell, then maybe the bulbs race towards maturity, exploding into color and brilliance. In a cold dark spring, they’ll linger long at every phase, inching towards blossoms that they’ll hold onto with extended awe. The patches of color will spread and change as the colder, darker parts of the garden finally bask in light and warmth. And my spring self will be grateful to my fall self for her foresight and altruistic gift to the future.
These are hard times for pretty much everyone. My family is going through big challenges, and we’re not alone in that. The world is in the wearying clutch of pandemic, shut off from each other. Conflict and tumult are the order of the day. Anger and fear have become the only emotions we feed, with every news story, tweet, and interaction telling us that we should be both afraid of what is happening, and angry that it has happened. There are few – and failing – sources of hope, of joy or even of fun. It can feel irresponsible and impossible in such dire times as these dark autumn days to be cheerful, optimistic, hopeful, joyful or even just content. Those emotions feel frail – difficult to create and easy to destroy. We are in a winter of our souls, with the emotional monochrome of that fear and anger. And it doesn’t seem possible that the frail sun will ever break through the clouds or be able to melt the implacable ice of division, or that we will ever again stand bare-armed in the sun among fragrant flowers.
But there are seasons in most things. Just because this is winter, it does not mean that winter is the only truth, or the only way we will ever experience life. I don’t know whether this is the beginning of a longer season (I have been thinking a lot of Gregory of Tours – for whom my son was named – who watched the curtain close on the civilization of Rome with a lonely dread), or if we are in March and the days are already lengthening. Or perhaps we’re in February, with much left to come but none of it worse than we’ve already lived through. But I do know that we are not fools to hold on to hope.
And so we plant bulbs, knowing that we will not see flowers for a long time. We plant bulbs, knowing we are mortal but not knowing what day our mortality awaits us. We improve the soil, which will be planted with seeds of some generation of flowers to come. We create loveliness, and do not squander the loveliness left to us by the loving anticipation of the past.
Do not despair friends. The things you fear may truly be real. But they have not yet come to pass. And there is still strength in you, to either prevent those things or endure them. In this season, we strive for enough strength for today to create that bright hope, which will bloom if not tomorrow – then soon.
Adam and I bought our house in December of 2007. It had been on the market for over 100 days, and come down about $100k in price. (I know this seems impossible today, but the house earned it’s lower price with 100% weird drop ceilings, cheap wood paneling and even shag carpets – plus the attractive pink color we all know and love so well. But it is a great house with a great layout in a great neighborhood with great “bones” so we figured we could live with (and eventually fix) the paneling/drop ceiling/shag carpet issues.
During our initial home inspection we were told to keep our eye out on a few things. The cast iron sewer pipe had to be replaced immediately. (They did that before we moved in. It literally shattered into pieces with one blow of a hammer. Thank goodness it wasn’t in use!) The roof probably only had 10 years in it. (We replaced the roof about 8 years ago.) And the wood surrounding the windows was rotten, and needed to be replaced before water got into the walls and made a serious issue of damage and mold.
Our house has, depending on the way you count, 36 windows. We replaced six of them with new construction Anderson windows when we did the attic project and brought that area down to studs. Several of those are on the porch, which is an entirely separate construction mechanism and disaster (and is a 3 season area, so not as critical). That leaves us with 25 crappy windows to attend to. They’re so bad that several of them cannot even be closed all the way.
After we finished the attic project, Adam and I agreed that our next major project would be the windows. There would be no other projects permitted to take precedence. (Well, we finished the floors and Adam is working on bookcases, but those were smaller in scope.) Then this summer, I got enough free time for a few weeks to actually tackle my gigantic backlog of things that need to be done. (So big.) And on that list was “find a contractor for the windows”. So I called up the guy who did the attic project, and lo and behold he was available in a few weeks and his quote was exactly what I was expecting, and I know his quality and reliability. So we paid the first third, ordered the windows and congratulated ourselves on taking care of this albatross hanging around our neck for a decade. While we were at it, we figured we’d also take care of the living room. It was in desperate need of love, with the worst of the drop ceilings and the cheapest of the off-white wood paneling. Plus insufficient outlets for a 21st century family. It’s an annoying project, but not a big one for a contractor to add onto existing work.
The reality really started hitting the weekend we needed to completely clear out the living room. I don’t know about you, but I’m not what you would call a minimalist. My house doesn’t exactly have room to easily host all the furniture from another room, especially not stuff like the couch. So we crammed coffee tables in corners, pretended passageways were walls for the entertainment set, and decided that our couch was ready to be someone else’s basement crash couch (it’s very comfy, but also very badly faded at this point). The rest of house felt full to bursting as the dining room echoed strangely.
Suddenly I realized – Adam couldn’t work in the dining room while they were doing demo on the living room. At least temporarily, he needed to move to the attic. And then the reality started really crashing down on me: every room in the house would be disrupted for this project, sequentially. We might have two rooms out at the same time. (Right now both the living room and the dining room are unusable.) During a pandemic. As the good weather begins to turn to unreliable weather. With midday really noisy sections. While EVERYONE IS HOME ALL THE TIME. AND WE CAN’T GO ANYWHERE ELSE.
WHAT WAS I THINKING?!?!?
Anyway, I’ll be glad when this project is over. (Anyone want to take bets on when that will be? It was supposed to be a 4 – 6 week project, and it started September 15thish. I’m thinking it’s done by Thanksgiving….)
My mom has been on my case about not providing an album with updates, so I’ve attached a link to the album below. I recommend you enjoy the pictures like “cat in a dusty room alone” and “view of porta-potty from dining room” or “what we found in the walls this time”.
Back in February, before the order of the world collapsed into quarantined chaos, Adam and I bought a new car. It was a high end plug-in hybrid Chrysler Pacifica – far and away the nicest car I have ever owned. This was the car that would see me through the end of my parenting years and the beginning of my camping all the time years! It would be big enough for teenagers and their friends, and for me to convince Adam to buy more camping gear. But it would be guilt free, getting ~50 miles per gallon! Plus heated seats and heated steering wheels and fancy bluetooth stereo systems. It was a gorgeous car.
But before I’d had it even two weeks, I was driving back from New Hampshire with my mom after having dropped Grey off at Camp Wilmot winter weekend when the car flashed a weird warning message. At 11 pm at night on I93 south in 14 degree weather it just …. stopped working. Like, at all. We waited hours for the tow truck to take us to the nearest dealership, and then took a Lyft home. But I was confident they’d fix my car. I mean, it had like a thousand miles on it. It was two weeks old. It was really expensive. Of course it would be ok.
The dealership they took it to, Bonneville and Sons, said that the error codes had mysteriously disappeared, they couldn’t recreate it, surely it was a fluke. They gave it back to me with a shrug of their shoulders after a few days. I was now nervous. Then COVID hit and no one went anywhere for a while. Finally in May, hiking became an option again and we headed up to do a quick day hike with Thane. On the drive back, at almost the exact same spot, we got the exact same error message. I got to with a tenth of a mile of Bonneville & Sons (I could see it easily from where we were) during business hours. Hooray! I thought! They’ll be able to access the codes! They’re right here! But the service department told me they were leaving in an hour, I’d have to wait for the Chrysler towing to move the car that tenth of a mile, and no. They wouldn’t even look at it. Or help me. It would just sit there over the weekend and then (I thought) the codes would be lost again. I was in tears, and incandescent with the incredibly awful service, and how little they cared. I’m not sure I’ve ever been that angry as a customer, or as little cared about.
So I had it towed to Massachusetts, to Brigham and Gill where we bought it. They said that there was nothing wrong with the error codes, Brigham and Gill had just deleted them last time.
They replaced a few things and tried a few things and consulted with Chrysler and eventually gave it back to me after a few weeks.
A few weeks later, it happened again, stranding us in a rest stop in New Hampshire – this time on our way UP to our day of relaxing adventures. We left it there, rented a car at Manchester Airport and continued our day (three hours delayed). We moved the car as far south as we could the next day (it crapped out at exit 1 in NH). Then the following day we limped it into the dealership, cleared of all our stuff. The only consolation was that it was definitely and incontrovertibly a lemon of the lemonest variety. There could be no argument. (It has to fail three times to be legally a lemon.)
But hey! I figured this would work out. I’d just get a new one. What would it take – a few weeks? Well. They had to pay my rental costs, but they only offer $35 a day. If you’re wondering, that is not the value of the car I bought. At all. So I spent most of the summer driving a beat up rental minivan with no Bluetooth capability (I didn’t even know that was still an option) that smelled strongly of the previous occupants smoking addiction and got like 12 mpg. I had to fight for that too – they wanted me to take a smaller car (which, uh, how would I go camping?). But the worst part was the extraordinary and slow and mysterious bureaucracy of the Chrysler process. There’s no documentation, or guidance on what to expect. There’s only being passed along to the next person who has no ability to actually do anything. My fingers itched to do some “process improvement” on whatever the hell they were doing with their internal machinations. It took MONTHS from the day we turned it in for the last time.
Finally, though, we did get the new car! My friends think I absolutely crazy to get the same vehicle again, but other than the bit where it routinely stranded me by the side of the road with 30 seconds warning, I loved it! I really don’t believe that all the Pacificas have this flaw, or they wouldn’t even be able to sell them. I am taking a huge risk, buying an extremely expensive vehicle from a company I know doesn’t take care of the owners of such vehicles. But it is still the only comparable vehicle on the market with fuel efficiency even close to that. And in a saving grace, I was really impressed with how the dealership we bought it from, Brigham and Gill, handled the situation.
We named the new car Artemisia after one of history’s most incredible women. She was a queen, battle-captain, regent and admiral of the Persian fleet with Xerxes during the Peloponnesian War (c. 450 BC). She made the incredibly sexist men of the era respect her, cleverly playing their expectations against them. She’s a woman for whom the name of her husband was unknown. She gets called out by name by Herodotus and Plutarch. She totally needs to have a movie made about her life. Until then, I’ll hope her indomitable spirit keeps her namesake at least on the road! We’ve passed the 1000 mile mark with no issues so far, so fingers crossed!!!
There was a moment where Thane was born when I had an epiphany. It’s funny, I know when it happened and what it did in my life, but I don’t remember the actual epiphany at all. Maybe it was a gradual realization. Maybe I was doing dishes. Adam and I had spent our 20s trying to be grownups – being reliable, showing up on time, gardening, learning how to cook, reading books, staying at home. We didn’t make big money, but we lived thriftily. I started my 401k with my first professional job when I was 21 years old – before I even graduated college. We were dead set on Being Grownups (because of course, we didn’t feel like it). But then I had Thane and I turned 30 and I realized that this was my one and only precious life, and my life would only include the things that I did in it. Moreover, I really only remembered the things that I photographed and/or wrote about. I bought a digital camera. I bought a book on photography. I started this blog. And I started planning to do things that were important and memorable.
We started camping. I ramped up the picture taking. We began to travel more, to visit more places and go on excursions. And I took more and more pictures of all of it (of course, the improvements in digital photography helped – taking pictures when you actually used film was a pain in the rear).
I suspect sometimes I now overdo it. Hundreds of pictures on a memorable day is not unusual. Last year, going through my pictures to put together a “Best of” album, I had over 10k pictures to review. And during precovid times we were exhausted and strapped by my insistence on constantly *doing things*. But then life hit the biggest collective pause button our generation has ever seen. In the year in which Adam and I celebrate 20 years of marriage (and 24 of sharing our lives), we were supposed to go on a romantic trip to Italy in April, which clearly didn’t happen. And as our anniversary approached, I was jolted by the realization that this really rather tremendous milestone was on its way to being lost in the sameness of these quarantine days (nice meal and dressing up aside). So I cast my mind for something truly memorable, something that wouldn’t erode with the currents of time, and was appropriate for a pandemic. One of those sorts of things you never have a good enough reason to justify the cost for doing.
Despite a widespread fear of heights among the assembled family (not me!) I got very little pushback for my crazy scheme. Even the 4:30 am wakeup call was handled with grace, fortitude and coffee. (It turns out balloon rides are almost always at dawn, when the winds are calmest. One of our co-fliers had tried 4 times to get in a balloon ride to be stymied by high winds the previous three). We got to the site at 5:30 and watched as they unrolled the balloon, tested the gear and started inflating the vast room-sized, rainbow balloon. We first had to hold down the basket, and then we climbed in. As gently as an escalator, the balloon started taking off next to its competitor compatriot, and ascended into the quiet of the New England dawn.
For some reason, the heights in a balloon are much less scary than other heights. The basket is firm beneath you. The rates feel human-scale. The margins feel large. We skimmed across the tops of trees – close enough to grab a handful of needles from a pine. We swooped low over the water of a lake, catching our reflection. Then we rose up high high high until the cars were smaller than Matchbox cars. Differences in height changed our direction. Our pilot Andre, who appears to have trained every other hot air balloonist in New England, told a series of well practiced jokes and tales, his persistent love of his aeronautical craft seeping through his customer facing banter. He was like a magician, seeing things in the future. It takes a long time to make a hot air balloon change where it is (heat is not the world’s most efficient method of steering), but he was somehow always seeing ahead and moving us to these invisible air currents made somehow visible to him.
The landing was rather exciting. They really only control up and down in a balloon, and to land they need quite a bit of cleared space, without power lines. New England is rather on the wooded side (Andre was vehemently anti-tree). So the cul-de-sac we landed in had seen balloons land there before, although the neighbors still turned out in delighted appreciation of the gem landing in their street. Except for one person, who was _BESIDE HIMSELF_ with anger that we would land there. He was hopping up and down with rage and cursing and generally making a scene, which shouldn’t have been funny, but absolutely was. The capper was when one of his long suffering and patient neighbors, in the midst of his profanity laden tirade against the balloon, greeted him with a very phlegmatic, “Morning Lenny”. Landing a hot air balloon does require a certain amount of diplomacy, and a canny and quick ground crew to literally sprint to catch the landing lines.
We ended our adventure with a glass of champagne (I looked up only to realize my Very Tall son had one as well – ah well! Good time for a first glass of champagne, I suppose!) in balloon cups with good wishes (including “friendly landowers) and a history lesson on the first aeronautical adventurers. And Andre gave us this toast, in his muted French accent:
May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God
joins you in laughter and sets you gently
back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
It was a lovely, beautiful moment my friends. Much has been abandoned, or prevented, or cancelled. There is fear everywhere, and grief and anger. Many traditions have been broken, and others forever lost. But we are humans. We are at our greatest when what is called for is stamina, forbearance, patience, humor, creativity and wonder. If the old is no longer possible, we can ask ourselves – what new things has that created space for? When we account for our lives, what will we – in the end – remember?
We all have different ways of coping with the crazy times we find ourselves in. This summer is a strange one in so many ways. It’s been beautiful and hot and precious here in New England, but as we tip into fall all of us are bracing for a school year far from normal, and the possibility of another winter trapped inside our homes. I’ve tried to be extra diligent lately with self care – doing things to build up my strength and nourish my spirit. And during a run a few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to learn how to draw.
It’s been interesting to discover my learning style. Lately, the trend has been towards video education. I hate hate hate and loathe learning things by video. I’m not sure why. I pretty much never go to Youtube for anything but workout videos (which are for some reason an exception). I know that there are probably infinite channels dedicated to this very task, as well as the entire video footage of Bob Ross. But I learned how to learn from books, and the written word is still 100% my preferred method. So I bought myself:
1) “You Can Draw in 30 Days” by Mark Kistler
2) A crazy complicated set of drawing pencils which did not come with any sort of guide on what to use when, or even what things are
3) A sketchpad. If I’d realized how BFFs you become with your sketch pad I would’ve bought a nicer one, but here we are
The first thing we drew was a pretest. We were supposed to draw a house, a plane and a bagel in five minutes each. I hesitate deeply to show you mine. You see, in my school, you either did art or you did music. And I definitely and 100% did music. And then some extra music. So I think my last formal education in art might have been … 3rd grade. And I wasn’t very good even in 3rd grade. Since then, I have improved not at all due to never trying to. So what you see below is not sandbagging – it’s actually my best attempt. DON’T MOCK ME. (Or, you know, only mock me behind my back.)
Obviously, any skills at all will be a vast improvement on the impressively-retained 3rd grade drawing level I started with. Since then, it’s been a real joy. The book is canny in showing you how to do something that looks and feels like a real accomplishment, and only sneaking a little theory or technique in along the way. It has those things, but the overall tone of the books is one of joyful experimentation on basics being taught. Here was my first real success, a measly three lessons in:
Then we moved onto squares. There are a few places where I could stand a little more explanation (like how do you get the length of the squares right? But my architectural friends better watch out – I’m not only doing open boxes, I’m doing treasure chests!
Then yesterday’s lesson was wild! Out of left field! After 7 days of circles and squares we suddenly went to …. koalas.
Then last night, from the giddy heights of Lesson 8, I thought …. what if I put all these things together in one crazy, overlapping circle, open box with pedestal, koala-combining extravaganza. Could I do it? Such a complicated piece? How do people not smudge their drawings when they do this? But I sat down and didn’t stop until I had … this.
I mean, compare to my pretest. Pretty amazing, right? There’s plenty of problems with it – probably more problems than drawing. But it was super fun! And it made me feel really good and accomplished and like I’d learned things. And that was a great feeling to have during this crazy time.
Here are my key takeaways so far:
1) Erasing is a tremendously important part of drawing – by intent. No artist is “so good” they don’t need the eraser. The eraser is a key tool.
1.5) I wish I had an eraser as precise as a pencil
2) I like to sketch in a high-hardness pencil (like 4H) and then texture in a high smudge pencil (like 4B). It’s somehow much easier to erase the Hs. I had to experiment a lot with the pencils to figure out what they did, and why you would use one over the other.
3) How DO people avoid smudging their drawings with their hands? Do they always move left to right (or non-dominant to dominant) in their drawings?
4) Someday I will not have to actually draw (and then erase) the sun to get the angles right. That day is a long time from now.
5) I still can’t tell with boxes whether I should shade in alignment with the angle of the box or the sun. Is the answer “it depends?” (Narrator: the answer is ALWAYS “it depends”)
6) It’s useful to redraw (in the bolder pencil) lines you want to have visible, so they really pop from the page
7) I’ve started thinking about drawing when I’m not drawing and noticing things in drawings I’ve never seen before.
8) This is fun.
I’m sure that if I power through to the end of the 30 days, I’ll inflict updates on you (or at my Instagram account – look for fairoriana).
The power of going from 0 to 1 in a skill you totally lack is intoxicating, especially when you get immediate rewards from the efforts. I’m looking forward to high powered doodles in my notebooks from here on out! Have you ever picked up a skill like this – where you could do nothing and then got to do something? Has that been a part of your COVID journey too? What have you always wished you could do, but never actually had the time and space to learn?
Twenty years ago the world was a wildly different place. There were no cell phones (although some people had car phones) – and definitely not smart phones. You couldn’t really take a selfie. We’d just flown through a crisis that we expected to be much worse (Y2K) and 9/11 hadn’t happened yet. It was a peaceful last year of youth, and a gentle entry into adulthood.
I woke up in my own bed in the house I’d then lived in longest (our current house has overtaken it, quite some time ago). I had gotten my Bachelor of Arts in English and Medieval Studies a scant 8 weeks prior, and was ready to join Adam in an apartment in Boston I’d never seen. I wore my mother’s wedding dress, and invited the whole church (all 25 of them) to our wedding. My knee trembled through the entire ceremony, making my bouquet jiggle incessantly. Adam mouthed “I love you” the whole time. Our guests held programs hand stamped and assembled by my family – my grandfather complaining delightfully about his slave labor contributions. We watched my brother in “Once Upon a Mattress” the next day before flying from Seattle to Boston, and then Boston to Athens for our honeymoon.
Last year, we took the boys to Greece. At the time I was like “Drat! I should have saved this for our 20th anniversary instead of our 19th!”. I’m so glad we didn’t. Adam and I had plans for a trip – just the two of us – to Italy this April. Obviously, that did not happen. It is unclear when it will be safe to climb on an airplane and wander across the world. Certainly by our 25th? I hope?
This year has been far from placid and peaceful. Pandemics, violence, unrest, fear, division and murder hornets have crowded headlines we’re increasingly exhausted from reading. We are trapped in our houses looking at a world through screens that only show us horrors and seek to divide us. But I will say this: that girl twenty years ago who gazed over a bouquet of pansies to marry the boy she loved chose very well. Being locked in with someone has shown many people whether they are really compatible or not. I’ve only come to love and respect my husband more as we’ve spent every day, all day together. Not JUST for his elite baking skills (although I am so not complaining) but for his patience, humor, thoughtfulness and service. He’s a remarkable man, and I’m lucky to have married him.
This anniversary snuck up on me. I mean, I had a plan and it was a really good one! Then it got interrupted, and things got complicated, and planning more than a week or two in advance seemed like a loser’s bet. So instead of one great grand gesture of the Amalfi coast, we’re doing a few things. Last night, we made steak for dinner, dressed up, set the table with silver and the dry clean only tablecloth (who DOES that?) and played a Cthulu game during the howling winds of Hurricane Isaias.
Today the plan is to sneak to the beach after work to catch some epic waves and linger in the heat. And then I have one of those “I’ve always wanted to do this but could never justify the expense” adventures planned for a few weeks from now.