Spring Forth

If you’ve never seen Atlanta in the spring, it looks like this:

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It’s an explosion of flowering trees, wisteria, and azaleas. The biological imperative to reproduce is on full display:  one of my daughter’s professors calls this “plant mating season”. The trees are outdoing each other for attention.  The rest of us are VIP guests at Plant World Fashion Week.

Of course there’s pollen, tons of it. Everything that isn’t covered with flowers is buried in yellow dust. And nobody can breathe.

But it’s worth it, especially if you have an 89-year-old mother with dementia. Because beauty never gets old. This time of year I don’t need to come up with any activities to do with her. All we have to do is go for a drive, and she’s happy.

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The other day we went to one of our favorite spots, a small lake with a walking trail. We used to walk around it, but now we’re content to sit on one of the swings and take in the view. We become a cheering section for joggers, a welcoming committee for parents and toddlers, and a disappointment to the ducks, who were expecting snacks.

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I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Mom’s dementia has forced me to slow down and notice all of this. It’s easy to take it for granted, or dismiss it as a nuisance — pollen season, ugh.

Driving through neighborhoods with her, walking oh-so-slowly to a park bench, sitting together without saying a word, I experience spring as a gift.  Every flower on these stately trees is new life from very, very old life; life that will continue long after she and I are dead; life that will remind me of her when she’s gone.  I can imagine myself in twenty years, on an spring day in Atlanta, sitting outside (on the same swing?) and remembering her.  I can already picture the sunshine, the slight nip in the air, the blossoms on the trees, and the thought in my mind:

Mother would have loved this.  

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The Work Basket

(Part of a series inspired by my grandmother’s sewing basket.)

In the novels of Jane Austen, well-to-do ladies periodically bring out a “workbasket” of fine linen to embroider or hem. It keeps their hands busy while they socialize, but it doesn’t put food on the table, so it doesn’t fit my definition of work, which is what you do to pay the bills. Right? I mean, how can delicate embroidery count as work?

IMG_2435The truth is, there’s no other “work” for Austen’s ladies to do. Even their wealthy husbands and suitors don’t have much to do except maintain their social standing; that’s exactly what Austen is satirizing. When I was growing up, more than a century after Austen, most women in my white, ranch-house-subdivision world still didn’t “work.” As more women entered the job market in the 1960s and 70s, a common question at cocktail parties was, “Do you work?” Stay-at-home moms rebelled: “Hell yes, we work!” Thus was born the more politically correct question, “Do you work outside the home?”, along with its corollary slogan, “Every mother is a working mother.” (How true.) But dishes and laundry and diaper changes are tasks that must be done over and over, leaving no permanent evidence of one’s labor.

My mom worked – inside and outside the home – for decades. She started working as a researcher in nuclear medicine straight out of college in 1948. By the time I was born she was teaching high school; after a brief hiatus during my nursery-school years, she went to work as a college math professor and never looked back. She loved it.

I was proud of my “working mother,” who earned a paycheck and helped struggling math students graduate from college. She still managed to bake cookies and sew Halloween costumes, but she put aside her needlepoint projects and fancy frills. I thought she was above all that crafty-stitchy nonsense. My mom was a professional. So I was shocked when, in retirement, Mom joined a quilting society and a chapter of the Embroidery Guild of America. What??

Suddenly I was being asked – forced – to reconsider my definition of work. Mom became an uber-volunteer, working for the food bank and Meals on Wheels, visiting nursing home residents long after her own mother had passed away, and sewing constantly. She belonged to a group called “Quilters for Others,” who made lapquilts for the elderly and blankets for the homeless. And she made the most exquisite pieces of needlework I have ever seen.

IMG_2438Needlework. Needle-work.

What was this tedious, mind-numbing hobby that was taking up so much of my mother’s time? How could she, who had raised me in chemistry labs and math classrooms, be content on the sofa with a piece of linen and a basket of fancy threads?

As it turned out, she was crafting much more than I knew. Like the best of Jane Austen’s characters, she was crafting relationships. Her “stitching buddies,” who met weekly to have lunch and work on projects together, became some of her closest friends. They went to classes and retreats together. They laughed at each other’s jokes and supported each other through challenging times: a husband’s cancer, a grandchild’s deployment to Iraq. All the while, they kept their needles busy.

And she was leaving a legacy. The fruits of my mother’s labor with a needle now hang on my walls. I marvel at the works of art she made for each of us. I’m already wondering which ones my daughter will want, and which will go to my niece and nephews, and whether they’ll want them now or later, when they’ve bought homes and settled down. These are tangible signs of a woman’s love for beauty, friendship, family, and community. They’re not her original designs, but they are her work, the work of her hands.

My mother taught me volumes about work. She changed my definition of the word. And she did it with nothing more than a needle and thread and a sewing basket.

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Object Lesson

Every week, WordPress issues a photo challenge. So far, I haven’t been ready to grab my camera and shoot pictures specifically for a post, but this week’s challenge reminded me of some photos I’ve been wanting to share.

The theme this week is “object”, and the challenge features a compelling picture by Cheri Lucas Rowlands. The object in the photo — a clear ball on a beach — is simple, but it grabs my attention and makes me want to step into the picture.

The obvious photo (but it still makes me happy)

The obvious photo (but it still makes me happy)

The object of my recent photo shoot was a vase of flowers. (When I take my mother grocery shopping with me, she often insists on buying flowers for me and chocolate for herself, so we both win).  I had these flowers on my dining room table and was struck by the way the afternoon light played with the glass, water, and clear marbles in the vase.

I’d been reading The Unforgettable Photograph by George Lange with Scott Mowbray.  (This cool video will tell you what the book’s about.)  I photographed the vase of flowers using the advice in Chapter 4:  Move Your Eye.  I love Lange’s exhortation:

“Keep moving until you find the place where, suddenly, you’re seeing things differently.  Forget about what is right and be open to being seduced by what you might have thought was wrong.  Always be hunting for a new angle.”  (p. 60)

That’s what I tried to do with my vase of flowers.  Here’s a sampling of what I got.

I love the tiny bruise on one petal.

A bruised petal

The porch railings reflected in the glass drew my eye first.

Porch railings in light and shadow

Glass in water in glass.

Glass in water in glass

Lange’s book is for everyone, not just photo geeks.  I highly recommend it.  Who knows what you might capture, if you let yourself see things differently?

 

 

Tree House

Autumn has been glorious in North Georgia, USA. We had an unusually rainy summer, and the old folks tell me that a damp summer brings a colorful fall. The leaves are vibrant yellow, deep red, burning orange. And we have a lot of them. Atlanta is a city in the trees; if you’ve ever changed planes at our airport, you’ve looked down on our forest of vegetation. I don’t know how they manage to fit the buildings in.

I lived in trees as a child. Not literally. I was just an avid tree climber. When my family moved to a house that had only tall pine trees, with limbs too high to reach, my dad hung a thick, knotted rope from the lowest branch so I could scramble up and disappear into the evergreen needles. I was six.

My husband and I bought our first house (our only house, so far) when I was thirty-five. One of the many things we loved about it was the yard full of hundred-year-old oak trees. Unfortunately, we soon fell into a multi-year drought that killed several of them, and despite the best efforts of a good arborist, we lost another to insects. As a result, we have fewer trees and a preponderance of dead wood, which the tree people cut into fireplace lengths and my husband splits with an ax.

We use it. One of the first things we did after we bought the house was have the previous owners’ gas logs removed from the fireplace. We may want that convenience later, but for now we love the crackle of a real wood fire. We heat water in a camp kettle for tea, and on rare occasions I make biscuits in a cast iron Dutch oven. (When our daughter was little and had friends over to play, one asked me, “Are you old-fashioned people?”)

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Tonight I’m sitting by the fireplace, warming my toes and marveling at what the trees have given us: shade, beauty, color, heat, nourishment. And the cycle continues. I recently noticed that a weed I’ve long neglected in the garden is turning into a healthy little oak sapling. I thought about pulling it up, but I think I’ll leave it right where it is, and move the garden when the sapling gets tall enough to make shade.

I want there to be plenty of trees for the next generation to climb. They might be old-fashioned people too.

Rescue Me

Today I had an urgent need for beauty.  Fortunately, I found it close by.  I’m not sure I could have gotten through the day without it.

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A rain-soaked spiderweb outside the front door

Monkey grass sprouting in the side yard

Monkey grass sprouting in the side yard

A fading flower in the kitchen windowsill

A fading flower in the kitchen windowsill

Beauty to the rescue.  I wonder where I’ll find it tomorrow.

A Thing of Beauty

(Part of a series about creating a new production of “Metamorphoses” by Mary Zimmerman at Georgia Shakespeare, summer, 2013.)

I was given the unexpected gift of a day off today, and not just any day off:  an exquisitely beautiful day off.

Today was glorious where I live; the sky was a perfect blue dotted with fluffy white clouds, the air was clear, the temperature was moderate, and the usual summer humidity had been swept away by last night’s storms – the very storms that caused a major power outage at the theater.

Hence, my day off.

Garden, June 2013 006Since I wasn’t expecting it, I didn’t immediately know to make the most of it.  But by early afternoon I was out in my yard, trimming shrubs, sweeping the walk, checking the vegetable garden.  I was reminded of a character from “Metamorphoses”, a wood-nymph named Pomona, “whose skill in the care of plants and trees has never been equaled.”  I’m no Pomona, but I love the natural beauty around my home.

The late philosopher Denis Dutton argued that our need for beauty is instinctual, that we respond to beauty in nature and elsewhere because it points to the robust, the healthy, the fertile, or the highly skilled; it points to what we need in order to reproduce and survive as a species.  

I recently listened to a TED Radio Hour program on beauty, and was happy to hear Dutton and others arguing that beauty is necessary, that our reaction to beauty is “hard-wired.”  I have wondered about this for years; I suffer from a practical streak, so I have trouble spending money on things that are “merely” beautiful.  And yet I will sometimes plunk down cold hard cash for a work of art that grabs me, no questions asked.  And I will toil and sweat in my yard to make it lovely and inviting.  I know I need beauty.  I was happy to learn that everyone does, whether we realize it or not.

Props crafted for "Metamorphoses"

Props crafted for “Metamorphoses”

Which brings me back to “Metamorphoses,” and to the larger subject of beauty in art.  I don’t believe that something must be beautiful to be considered a work of art.  But I do believe that when we experience beauty in art, we experience a unique and powerful thrill.  We know that a person or group of people have created this experience of beauty for us.  It’s not something we’ve stumbled upon; it’s been designed for our pleasure, to lift us out of the ordinary.  

That work – that creation of an experience of beauty – is what calls me back to the theater time and again.  Sure, I was grateful for my day off today.  But really?  I want to get back to work creating something beautiful.