Keep Easter Weird

img_2806 ‘Twas the day of Easter, and all through the town/Not a human appeared going up or down. Or something like that. I know that the forerunner of my ditty is from a different holiday, but there’s certainly no one out today.

This circumstance may be unusual at Easter in the USA, where kids will be hunting Easter eggs and creating colorful confetti messes with cascarones, but in Spain the quiet and solitude today are downright weird. Typically even the humblest village would have a procession with large floats carried on poles supported by cadres of folks who train all year for this joyous duty. Onlookers in bright clothes would line the streets to pay reverent homage, celebrate the Easter story, or just enjoy the spectacle. But this year the country celebrates Easter in lockdown, and we are all attending Zoom church in our pajamas instead crowding into a sanctuary in our Sunday best. This holiday, is, in short, weird.

Now, we’re all doing our best to celebrate the miracles of resurrection and rebirth. Electronic Easter greetings abound, and several friends have posted lovely pictures of decorated eggs and beautiful flowers in their homes. Mark and I are doing our bit. He picked out “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” on his guitar this morning, and we had chocolate flavoring in our morning coffees. We’ve been to a couple of virtual services already and plan to attend the one our Austin church will do in a bit. And displayed above are the butterflies we’ve made and hung in our living room. Mark strung them up last night as I talked with a friend in the USA.

Hanging strings of butterflies is a tradition of our home church in the capitol city of Texas (a city, I might add, whose unofficial motto is “Keep Austin Weird”). All through Lent, butterfly shapes cut from colored paper are available in the pews. Congregants write prayers on them, and the butterflies go into the collection plate that’s passed during the service. Those butterflies are deposited into urns, which represent cocoons. Between Good Friday and Easter, the butterflies are strung onto cords that are then hung, criss-crossed, above the pews in the sanctuary. The colorful prayers of the people emerge and grace our worship space for several weeks. The one exception was the year some bridezilla who’d rented our sanctuary decided that our butterflies looked tacky and, disobeying strict injunctions to the contrary, cut them all down. If she thinks love on the fly is tacky, I wish her and her groom the best of luck. They’re going to need it.

No one is celebrating Easter in our sanctuary this year, but our senior pastor has urged us all to uphold our tradition and display butterflies in our home. This suggestion presented a problem for us; Mark and I don’t stock colored paper, and stores here that would are closed. We ended up raiding the paper recycling bin for colorful pasteboard. The pink butterflies are from a cereal box, the yellow ones from a three-pack of tuna, and the orange ones are from a picture of a cheese pizza on a pizza box. My personal favorite is the red one, which came from a box of baking powder. The shapes are a bit wobbly, as I cut them freehand. But never say I went to first grade for nothing!

So this holiday celebration is quite out of the ordinary. But if you think about it, Easter is weird, too. The Bible tells us that finding an empty tomb came as a surprise, first to the women and then to Peter and John. Mary also generally probably didn’t confuse Jesus with the local cemetery gardener, although given the circumstances she gets points in my book just for still being upright. We usually celebrate Easter with pomp and some degree of glitz, but at its heart, the day is just flat bizarre – in the most wonderful way possible, of course.

So Mark, the butterflies, and I are keeping Easter the Easter tradition of weirdness, along with the rest of the lockdown world. May the promise of rebirth as ushered in on the oddest day ever infuse each and every one of us. Keep Easter weird, my friends. And stay safe.


img_2802When I was a kid, I watched wwaayy too much television. Most children like to play outside, but Southeast Texas’s humidity and mosquitoes discouraged that desire in me. So I read, played dolls, and watched TV. I may in fact have been the only kid whose main concern the day before kindergarten started was that I would miss my soap operas, “The Edge of Night” and “The Secret Storm,” while Mrs. Tompkins was teaching us colors, numbers, and how to stand in a straight line to walk to the playground. Happily, my mother volunteered to keep me up to date, so it all turned out okay.

Of course I’ve forgotten most of what I saw, which is probably good. But the power of Madison Avenue is evident in what I do recall, because my memories are mostly of commercials. The award for the most obnoxious ad goes to one for Bold. In it, an unsuspecting housewife was on trial in front of a male judge. She was charged with “improper laundry,” which “wasn’t clean and white, when you could be washing bright” with Bold detergent. This makes me cringe even now.

There were happier commercials, though, and one of them was for Zest soap. Do stores still sell this brand? The ad I remember came with a snappy little jingle: “Zest has changed! Zest is zestier! Now feel cleaner than you’ve ever felt before!” Now, I never actually used Zest. My mother claimed I had sensitive skin and therefore only could tolerate Camay. (Having sensitive skin and naturally curly hair were my two most feminine accomplishments as a child.) But skin notwithstanding, I begged for the mysterious wonder soap. Its name was the key. What a great word is Zest! It means enthusiasm and vigor and love for life. Who wouldn’t want to bathe in that? I wanted to be zesty.

Imagine, therefore, my surprise when, as an adult, I learned that flecks of citrus peel were also called zest. Still loving the word, although no longer craving the soap, I even bought a zester for my kitchen. It’s a tiny grater on which I’ve skinned many a finger trying to generate enough zest for a recipe. (Before you ask, I do take care not to bleed on the food.) My zester currently resides in Texas, so in Spain, I cheat and use the food processor. And we have such gorgeous citrus here that I’ve become, well, obzest. The pictured muffins were made with lemon zest, and I put orange zest in my cereal most mornings. We have a lot of celery left over from a batch of soup, so I’m making a celery pasta sauce that’s topped with orange zest. Waste not, want not, right?

Yet there’s another kind of zest that I need right now, that we all need right now. Being hunkered down, even in the best of circumstances, can bring on a bit of melancholy. That’s why we need zest, enthusiasm, love of life. Mark and I are trying to invest time in activities that we love and which bring us joy. Our plans for hearing an opera at La Scala are scuttled for the time being, but the Met is streaming past performances that are really amazing. We spent an evening with MacBeth and his lady the other night, and the production was fantastic. It brought us joy. I’ve baked muffins and bread and made vegetable and creamy celery soups. This makes me happy. And since there’s no one currently living in the other two apartments on our level of our building, we’ve taken over the elevator lobby as a dance floor. Mark hooks up the speaker to his iPod, and we swing dance and two-step on the terrazzo while light filters in through the frosted glass window. This makes us both really happy. It puts zest into our days.

So maybe today will bring you television, or muffins, or a swing dance. Who knows? Whatever the day holds, I certainly wish you safety, but I also wish you joy. May there be much zest in your life.




All of me

img_2799Like most of you, I’ve been finding ways to amuse myself during our COVID-19 quarantine. The picture attached to this post shows you one thing that’s been occupying my time. This puzzle is a compilation of covers from the first 56 Nancy Drew mysteries. I devoured these books as a kid and am surprised at how many of the plot lines apparently have been nesting in some obscure corner of my brain for the last several decades.

This paragraph is a complete tangent, so if you want to stay with the main theme of this post, just skip on. No offense taken. But as much as I loved Nancy Drew, my favorite girl detective is still Judy Bolton. The Judy series ran roughly contemporaneously with ND, although it differed from its more successful sister in several ways. One difference that I always appreciated was that Judy, unlike Nancy, was not a perfect person. She had a temper, acted impetuously, and bickered with her older brother. She also grew older and changed. We meet her in high school in the first book, The Vanishing Shadow. By the time the series ended, Judy had graduated from high school, worked as a secretary, gotten married, and started to take on issues such as the plight of many Native Americans (The Spirit of Fog Island) and anti-Muslim violence (The Search for the Glowing Hand). We had to go see the Dragon’s Mouth at Yellowstone since Judy had traveled there in one of her books. 🙂

Back to the Nancy covers now! I’m loving the puzzle. Putting each piece in place is satisfying. That’s because the picture is only complete when all of the pieces are there. It takes all of them to make the picture perfect. I’m reminded of the old song, “All of Me.” You may already be familiar with it, but this song is worth another listen. I know it mostly from the Willie Nelson version, but the Billie Holiday rendition grabs me like no other. The song may be on the old side – it was written in 1931 – but its wise message endures. Give completely. If you’re in a relationship, give yourself fully to another person. Once you’ve decided on a course of action, commit yourself. When you read or listen or admire, focus.  “You took the part that once was my heart/So why not take all of me?”

Given that perspective, I’m taking this song as my anthem for our COVID-19 experience. I’m all in on lockdown. There’s no cheating to run out and look at the sunset, even if the police are nowhere in sight. There’s no quick run over to a neighbor’s place for a chat, even if the neighbor is in my building and the visit would be undetectable. We all have to do this to protect ourselves and everyone around us. As with my puzzle, if one piece is missing, if one person cheats – the picture is imperfect. And with COVID-19, imperfection could be disastrous.

We will get through this time and look back on it, perhaps, with a weird fondness. Most of us have never experienced anything that binds us so much, that shows us how we truly are all in this together. Remember that “All of Me” became a hit during the Depression. This was another time when we saw how interconnected we are and rose to the occasion to weather it. We can do this. It just takes all of me. It just takes all of us.





I’ve got a little list

Mark and I are fortunate to share a lot of interests, one of which is opera. We have seen lots of opera and operetta performances over the years. But among those that stand out in my memory is The Mikado, which we saw at Houston Grand Opera many years ago. The fact that we were seeing Gilbert and Sullivan’s clever composition would have been great in and of itself, but we had the added pleasure of watching Eric Idle of Monte Python fame play the role of Koko and sing his version of “I’ve Got a Little List.”

A little G&S background may be useful here. Koko, who was scheduled to be executed for flirting, finds himself instead to be appointed as Lord High Executioner. He’s ordered to execute someone – pretty much anyone – by the end of the month or face dire consequences. Lacking an obvious candidate besides himself, Koko sings a famous and much-parodied number with a list of people he would consider executing. The original list includes people who interrupt quiet conversations, play the banjo, or laugh in an irritating way. Tradition allows Kokos to substitute more contemporary concerns for the ones the original Koko articulated. So, in due time, tabloid editors, subprime lenders, elderly aunts who insist on being kissed, and Bill O’Reilly’s dermatologist have made the list.

I honestly don’t remember what was on Idle’s list the night we saw him perform, but the song has stuck with me. That’s probably because I’m a list person. My mother instilled that in me; she always had lots of lists going. The grocery list, for example, lived for as long as I can recall on top of a half-wall between the kitchen and breakfast nook in our house. My favorite of her lists was the one of Thanksgiving preparations I found when my sister and I were cleaning out my parents’ house after they’d both died. Item 1 was “Shampoo Kathy.” I guess she was more interested in making lists than updating them. Fair enough!

My most recent list springs from my need to find some control and order in the unstructured, uncharted territory of COVID-19. Many of my Facebook friends are noticing how different life feels without the routines of school, job, church, volunteer work, meetings, and the like. I feel it, too. And So here’s my response, i.e., my daily list:

1. Do a devotional reading

2. Exercise for 30 minutes

3. Do something creative (The pot you see below is full of improvised bean soup – that’s today!)

4. Have social media time (But not too much)

5. Write an encouraging Facebook post (This is today’s)

6. Practice Spanish on Rosetta Stone

7. Make donations (Check out animalrescuesite and freerice)

8. Pray, meditate, or do both

9. Listen to music or sing

10. Read, play games, put together jigsaw puzzles, or do some combination of these

11. Organize tomorrow

12. Be grateful

Some days I complete my list; some days I don’t. It’s not there to beat me up. It’s also not exclusive. For example, the apartment mulishly refuses to clean itself, and every time we eat a meal some gremlin puts dirty dishes in the sink. But my little list is a starter, something of a touchstone in an unusual time. So here’s the question: what’s on your list?






A hell of a thing

Before you ask, no, this isn’t where we are. We’re back in Spain, tucked up and locked down in our cozy apartment. But this is my favorite picture from our recent stay in the USA; I took it in New Hampshire in February. We had a big snowstorm while we were there and spent a few days nestled in another cozy apartment, reading and watching movies and being all hygge. So at least we’ve had some practice for what’s going on now!

Much of our time in New Hampshire was occupied with attending candidate rallies in anticipation of the early primary in that state. Trust me, there was no social distancing going on there! But it was fun to be packed cheek by jowl with other folks out to see the candidates. Amy Klobuchar was our favorite, and it will be interesting to see where her career goes from here. After New Hampshire, we flew to Texas and our beloved home in the Hill Country. We had a great visit. There’s nothing like seeing family and friends, eating barbecue and Tex-Mex, and shopping for used books at Half Price.

All of those normal activities now seem like they happened to someone else. The world is experiencing a pandemic that is killing many people and sickening many more. This experience has brought to mind something our daughter Jane used to say when something happened that was important but hard to describe: “That was a thing that was a hell of a thing.” This pandemic is a hell of a thing.

COVID -19 has changed the landscape, literally and figuratively, for all of us. We’re now in a country where time outside is limited to trips to get food or medical care and to work. Oh, and people with dogs may walk them briefly outside. (Is some enterprising soul renting out dogs?) After we flew in yesterday, I made a quick run to our nearest grocery store for essentials. Happily, the store was fully stocked. The one difference in the store’s operation was that customers are not allowed in the produce aisle. Instead, you tell a store employee stationed in the aisle what you want, and they get your items and hand them to you. Everyone was kind and patient.

But today we’re in our apartment, listening to the sound of the waves crash on shore. No chatter from the restaurants and bars below interrupts the hypnotic rhythm of the sea. That part is actually quite soothing. I’m doing laundry and unpacking. Mark and his friend Rick just finished a videoconference in which they rewrote the lyrics of “I’m a Believer” to deal with COVID-19 issues. We’re lucky to be here.

Why are we in Spain instead of the USA? It certainly was a lot of trouble finding flights here; we had several cancel on us and ended up in cramped coach seats instead of our typical, more spacious Economy Plus ones. We also had a seven-hour layover in Toronto and shelled out for a sojourn in one of the airport lounges. We saw people everywhere with face masks and plastic gloves on, and restaurants and bars were mostly closed in the airports. It was a tiring trip, although for the most part people were kind and patient. Let’s put it this way: I was so jet-lagged by the time we got home that I failed to finish my glass of wine last night before heading to bed for 12 hours.

So why did we choose to return to Spain? It’s because of, not in spite of, COVID-19. Health insurance in the USA is so expensive that we don’t maintain an ongoing policy and instead buy travelers’ health coverage for our stays there. But our policy for this trip was expiring on March 22, and re-upping coverage was not an option. Our Spanish policy covers us up to about $30,000 in the USA if we get sick or injured there, but that amount will buy you about half an emergency room visit.  We figured that if you need to ride out a pandemic somewhere, you might as well do it in a country with one of the best health care systems in the world and complete health insurance. And while Spain is reporting many cases of the virus, it’s also taking strong steps, such as the ones described above, to flatten the curve. So here we are, and here we’ll be, at least for a while. And isn’t this a thing that is a hell of a thing?

Grab bag


After Christmas, I got to thinking about all of the wrapping paper I’d used over the years. We give a fair number of gifts, so our contribution to the world’s paper waste stream has no doubt been a large one. Of course we recycle what we can, but it occurred to me that using gift bags would be better. Unfortunately, conventional gift bags are made of paper, too, and really can only be reputably reused a couple of times. I therefore decided that making cloth bags for at least most of the presents would be a project for me in 2020. I don’t have or even know how to operate a sewing machine, but this little cutie above is the first of my hand-sewn efforts. I’m rather proud of myself!

Truth be known, I really like opening bags, boxes, and the like to see what’s inside them. I love looking through attics and garage sales and jumble tables to see what’s there, assuming no objectionable creatures make an appearance while I’m searching. Finding a bit of this and a couple of thats can be fun and, often, useful. It’s amazing what can be handy.

I’m finding the process of learning Spanish to be similar. My Spanish definitely has seams that are not quite straight and an amateurish top, but, like my bag, it’s remarkably functional. I can shop, read most signs, ask for rudimentary directions, and find the bathroom the vast majority of the time. Of course, it helps that many people here in Torrevieja speak at least some English. Both the Spaniards and folks from other parts of Europe generally have enough English to do about what I can do in Spanish, if not far more. It’s a point of pride to have several languages.

To work on our language skills, Mark and I do Rosetta Stone lessons online and practice Spanish in two language groups. One meets on Tuesday and is fairly basic, but the people are great, and I always learn something and have lots of fun with friends in the process. Our Thursday group is a bit more serious. It has a theme of the week, sent out over What’s App by our leader, Mara. Each participant (except for one lady from Wales who never says a word, but she seems very nice) prepares a small response to the theme in Spanish and English. For example, one week we talked about a risk we would take. (Mine was going inside the Great Pyramid at Giza, in case you’re interested. I don’t like dark, enclosed places, but this would be worth the inevitable bad dreams that would follow.) Several of the people in these groups know multiple languages. Inevitably, little conversations in Spanish, English, French, Italian, and German pop up, and those are just the languages I can identify. People are rightly proud of being polyglots and want to learn more.

Which brings me to something that happened on Facebook a while ago. I’m still thinking about it. There was a discussion on a friend’s page about speaking English in public in the USA. A friend of my friend- not someone I know – argued that it was justifiable to demand that people speak only English in the USA, because “If you were in Italy they’d get mad at you if you didn’t speak Italian, and if you were in Spain they’d get mad at you if you didn’t speak Spanish.” I normally don’t argue with strangers on Facebook, but I just had to respond. I said that this had not been my experience while traveling in Italy and most certainly was not my experience spending lots of time in Spain. He never replied to my comment, so I have no idea whether it had any impact at all.

All of this makes me wonder why such a big, diverse population as the American people would include so many folks who espouse the English-only stance I saw on Facebook. Is it actually a big deal if you can’t eavesdrop on the two women in front of you in line at the grocery store? Kidding aside, are we really that insular? Do we dislike education that much? And do we honestly think that the world shares our opinions on this subject? People generally are proud of what they know. Why aren’t we proud that people in our country know lots of cool things, including languages other than English? It beats me.

I’ll close this post on the grab bag of language with a fun factoid about a dead Mediterranean language. No, it’s not Latin; it’s Sabir, a Mediterranean lingua franca used from the 11th century up into the 19th century. It was apparently originally a commercial language used by merchants and sailors who needed a common tongue to do their jobs effectively. Later it was used in diplomacy and even shows up in a play by Moliére. Sabir borrowed from Portuguese, French, Spanish, Italian, Genoese, Venetian, Catalan, Occitan, Berber, Turkish, and Arabic to create a tongue that was understood and used throughout the Sea’s many cultures. Apparently you can take free online lessons in Sabir on, but we’ve mostly lost this useful tool. That’s a pity and a cautionary tale. How grateful I am for the many beautiful languages around the globe!



Dear Meghan and Harry

So you’ve decided to become a two-continent family! Welcome to the club, friends. And since Mark and I have been doing this drill for a year and change now, let me share some tips with you about living in Europe and North America.

First, be ready to enjoy what the local culture has to offer. You’ve chosen Canada as your home in the New World, and it’s a lovely country. You will need to learn to love the local cuisine, though, which for us has meant delicious tapas and paella. As for you – well, I hope you like poutine. And Tim Horton’s has very good doughnuts. You’ll also need to get up to speed on local sports, so you might start learning the rules of hockey, to the extent there are any. We have come to enjoy fútbol, although the rules still make no sense to me. There are yellow flags and red cards, and players get called offsides when the referee is annoyed. That’s about what I’ve learned thus far.

Second, you’ll have to learn the local language. Theoretically, Canada and England both speak English, although I’ve got to admit that with some Brits I really don’t understand much of what they say. I wish people came with subtitles. My tip is just to smile and nod and hope that the other person is not telling you about their cancer diagnosis. If they look worried, dispense with the smiling and instead murmur noncommittally. You can get a lot of mileage out of “Huh” or “Oh, my” in these situations. If you head to Quebec, you’ll need to learn some French; Harry, you have ancestors from Normandy, so this might come naturally to you. And of course for all of Canada, as far as I can tell, it’s important to be able to throw in the occasional “Eh?” at the end of a sentence. If you want to practice outside of the country until you get the hang of it, go to Maine. They say that there, too.

Third, and finally, don’t worry too much about shipping lots of stuff. Credit cards work all over the world. If you have something you really love, like a favorite bathrobe or paring knife, just get one for each continent. It’s way easier than trying to remember where you left it. And if you end up with three identical vegetable streamers and four pairs of tweezers in one country and zero in the other, don’t worry. Just make a little pile of things to cart across the Atlantic next time you go. Surely it enlivens the otherwise dull day of an airport security worker to speculate on why you have a vegetable steamer packed in with your ermine robe or Order of the Garter. And remember, when friends come to visit, they can bring you things. Lovely folks have brought us multivitamins and a good solid American vegetable brush. It’s the little things that count.

So enjoy your new life, and let us know if you need further counsel on the bi-continental thing. Oh, and one last reminder – in Canada, they’re diapers, and not nappies.







assorted color intermodal containers
Photo by Magda Ehlers on

The bucket list

img_2427-1As part of my work to improve my Spanish, I use the Freerice  app each day. This app quizzes me on Spanish vocabulary words; for each correct answer, 10 grains of rice are donated to the World Food Programme. Those grains are literally a drop in the bucket, but they are something. Everybody wins.

The big problem with Freerice is that I can’t control the vocabulary on which it quizzes me. Words that haven’t proved to be terribly useful to me yet pop up regularly. For example, Freerice almost always asks me about the words for needle and thread, aguja and hilo, even though my sewing is pretty much limited to reattaching buttons. Likewise, I often encounter the word for basement, sótano, even though we don’t have basements in Torrevieja, because we are next to the sea. But my favorite unuseful word is cubo, or bucket. I get this word almost every day, which is a great deal more often than I use a bucket, much less have a discussion about one. This part of the Freerice enterprise reminds me of the scenes in “Love  Actually” where Colin Firth learns Portuguese in order to propose to the woman he’s fallen for. He mutters his new lingo in class and out of it, apparently hoping to cobble together a romance with some helpful phrases about that being his blue pencil and how he’d like to purchase a fish.

In fairness, having the word bucket on my Freerice list has gotten me thinking about my own bucket list. In my very charmed life, I’ve had the opportunity to check off lots of items that most people, including me, have on their lists. I’ve stood on the Great Wall, floated under the Bridge of Sighs in a gondola, and walked the terraces at Machu Picchu. I’ve craned my neck up at redwoods, snorkeled among turtles, and peered (from a safe distance) at flowing lava. I’ve visited many of the great cities and seen the world from a hot air balloon and a parasail. How lucky am I? Lots of people who are kinder, smarter, and harder working than I am have not had these opportunities.

And that’s just the things that lots of people want. Of course, each person has items that might not appeal to everyone, and that’s true for me, too.  Living abroad, for example, was on my list and Mark’s, but it’s not for everybody. Riding bikes through Central Park and poking through bookshops on Charing Cross Lane  were fun for Mark, but those were more for me than for him. And spending time in a museum in Berlin gazing at part of Priam’s Treasure from Troy (see picture above) was definitely a me thing. I got interested in Heinrich Schliemann’s haul when I was a kid and read Elizabeth Peters’s madly fun novel, “Trojan Gold.” We know now that the Russians have some of the booty that they took from the Germans at the end of WWII (and boy, are the Germans still angry about that!), but Ms. Peters’s account of a search in the mountains of Germany for Priam’s gold conducted by one of my favorite fictional couples, intrepid American historian Vicky Bliss and charming thief John Smythe, is an absolute delight.

Back to the list. Many items remain. Some of them are in process: we are scheduled to travel to Jordan and Israel this Spring, and we’ve booked an apartment for 10 days in June in Florence. We are hoping to go to an opera at La Scala. Other items will have to wait their turn: Australia and New Zealand, Antarctica, Egypt, and Greece are ahead of us, God willing. There’s more on my list, but you get the idea.

But there’s another aspect of buckets yet to ponder. A couple of years ago when a friend and I were participating in the Reading Buddies program in a school in Austin, the girl I read with introduced me to yet another wonderful book. Carol McCloud’s adorable “Have You Filled a Bucket Today?” shows us how being kind and friendly can make others feel better and, in turn, make the world a better place. In other words, we try and fill other people’s buckets with good feelings. It’s a simple idea, but the book treats it with great care and good humor. And when I’m living my life the way I should, whether at home or out of a lark, filling other people’s buckets should, in fact, be the top item on any list I have.

So here’s to Freerice and cubos and Trojan gold and little kids and everything that fills our buckets. I hope yours overflows with joy and love today and that this post added a tiny drop to the deluge.



I’m dreaming of a light Christmas

img_2558When we still lived in our big family home in Austin, Christmas was something of an extravaganza. We’d put up a gigantic cut tree that would be covered in ornaments, lights, and multi-colored garlands. Greens would festoon the living room. Christmas Eve dinner would be a multi-course feast, usually with friends, family, or both in attendance. We’d all put out stockings; Mark’s and mine are about three feet long (a friend once called them “the greediest stockings in the world”) and would be jam-packed. The kids’ stockings would overflow onto the hearth, and everyone had many presents under the tree to unwrap and enjoy.

This Christmas, as you can imagine, was a bit different than that. Mark and I had pre-Christmas in Berlin, and then we flew to the USA. Flying Berlin/Lisbon/Boston/ Cincinnati made for a long travel day (and then some), but it was worth it to spend three fun days with our beloved Jane and JJ. Amazon has delivered scads of boxes to their house, and I admit that we just left our gifts in the delivery boxes instead of wrapping them as I’ve always done. And I managed not to feel guilty about that.

When we’d concluded our Ohio visit, we flew back to Boston, picked up our precious Mary, and drove to New Hampshire to spend Christmas in the White Mountains. There was some snow on the ground, although the only falling snow we saw occurred during our drive back to Boston, which made for fun driving for poor Mark. But in New Hampshire we bought a small artificial tree and duly buckled it up to take back to our condo. There we put on a few decorations, draped a garland over the Franklin stove in the living room, and called it decorated. I did wrap the gifts for Mark and Mary, but since we only got one roll of wrapping paper the color scheme was a bit monotonous. I did liven things up by using some flamingo wrapping paper we had on hand, drawing small Santa hats on the pink birds to add a seasonal touch. But there were no stockings except for the woolly socks everyone received, and we had a simple meal of roast chicken, new potatoes, green beans, and crescent rolls. And all of that was okay, even when it was quickly followed by a low-key New Year’s Eve. Delayed flights meant we got in just in time to watch fireworks from our balcony and drink a glass of champagne with the revellers on German TV, who were gathered to hear The Gypsy Kings play at the Brandenburg Gate. Randomly, the music included Doris Day’s standard, “Que Sera, Sera,” John Denver’s “Country Roads,” and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” And the next day was our first anniversary of coming to Torrevieja, but Mark got sick, so we skipped celebrating. It still was low-key, but it was okay.

What I’m getting at here is that we had less of a white Christmas and more of a light Christmas. Everything from trees to decorations to meals was simpler than in the past, but the holiday was still really lovely. I was hoping that I was finally detaching from needing the trappings in order to be okay. And I think I was. Frederick Beuchner, a contemporary American Christian writer and poet, once said that all good theology is about letting go. I was trying to practice good theology, and it felt great.

That was, it felt great until today. Tomorrow’s my birthday, and we were going to go to Murcia to see some friends and then come back and go to a party at given by some other friends. Well, first Mark got sick, so we canceled the run to Murcia. And then one of the people giving the party got sick, so now the party is canceled. It’s just life – #winterbirthdaysarecomplicated – but I’m disappointed. And I’m disappointed that I’m disappointed. Where is my good theology, my ability to detach from wanting hoopla?

So I’m spending this afternoon making soup, catching up on laundry, and writing this blog post. After that’s all done, I’ll probably finish my library book and take a walk. I’m hopeful that somewhere along the way I’ll remember that I’m lucky to be in a beautiful place, to have all of my physical needs met (and way more), and to be able to claim sweet family and friends as I barrel into age 61. Perhaps along the way I’ll recapture that sense of a light Christmas. I hope so.



How to museum

img_2406Look at me! I’ve only written the title of this blog post and have already created a new verb: to museum. Normally I’m the last one to adopt new words; for me, “impact” is still not a verb, and I once nipped a potential friendship in the bud because the potential friend said “impactful” in every third sentence. There’s only so much a woman can bear. But now, in my lexicon, to museum is a verb.


We need this verb because the museum experience is so much more than “visiting” or “going to.” A good museum changes you, startles you, awes you. This has certainly been the case here in Berlin, where Mark and I have spent the last couple of days in four top-flight museums. The picture above shows you twilight on Museum Island in Berlin, home of several amazing institutions. We’ve seen the Bode, Altes, Pergamon, Neues, Surrealist, and Design museums. (Ironically, the Neues, or New, Museum houses the oldest of the materials on exhibit.) And although I’ve enjoyed each of these places mightily, please don’t ask me to pronounce them. Mark’s in charge of German in our family, since he had a whopping two quarters of the language in college. Besides that, he’s recovering from a gooey cold and has lots of phlegm, which immensely improves his German pronunciation.

But even if I can’t say where I’ve been, I can tell you a thing or two about them from experience over the years. My love affair with museums started when I was a kid and read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. If you haven’t read this classsic, for heaven’s sake stop reading this blog, go read it instead. In the unlikely event you’ve forgotten the story, let me remind you. Two school kids who are seriously bored with their suburban lives run away to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and take up residence there. They become involved in a mystery surrounding the provenance of a statue of an angel which may or may not be by Michaelangelo. The resolution of the origin of the statue and the kids’ fates is way too good to give away here.

The lovely if less well-known The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright was my next museum book. In this gentle coming of age novel, which was published in 1941, the four Melendy kids decide to pool their allowances and allow each kid to have a Saturday adventure of their own. Miranda, who proposes the idea, takes her pot of dimes and goes to an art museum. There she finds a special painting and a friend, and I won’t spoil the rest of it by telling you more. This book is still one of my favorites, and Randy’s day out is a comfortable homage to museuming.

Once I got to be an adult, I could put away the books and go full steam ahead on actual museuming. I’ve been privileged to see some astonishingly good museums. Whether alone, with Mark, or with the kids in tow, I/we’ve been to several Smithsonians, the Metropolitan in New York, the British Museum, National Gallery, Tate, Tate Modern, and Victoria and Albert in London, the Louvre and Orsay in Paris, the Prada and Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Vatican…. You get the idea. And yes, we did drag the kids to art museums when they were young. At the Art Institute in Chicago, I hauled the two of them to a few famous pieces, made them stand right in front of them, and recited, “This is very important art. Remember that you’ve seen this.” I have no idea whether this tactic worked. Perhaps I’ll ask someday.

Based on these experiences, then, I offer you the following rules for museuming:

1.  Plan ahead. Many museums close on Monday. Check beforehand if that’s a day you were thinking of visiting. And if you’re in a relatively religious country, check to see whether some random saint’s day or feast day will interfere with your plans. This happened to us in Madrid, where the Reina Sofia closed for the celebration of the day of the city’s patron saint. Fortunately, since in Spain religious holidays always involve colorful processions, we enjoyed that instead and had hot chocolate to boot. But our daughter Mary still hasn’t seen Picasso’s “Guernica,” which sometimes makes me feel like a bad mother.

2.  Wear comfortable shoes. For that matter, wear comfortable clothes. Presumably patrons will be looking at the displays and not you. If the displays are so dull that visitors are resorting to checking each other out, you’re in a bad museum. Leave. You should and could more profitably spend your time doing important things, like playing the next twelve levels of Candy Crush or googling songs lyrics you’re not sure of. Face it, nobody really knows the correct words to “Blinded by the Light.”

3.  Take care of yourself. Eat before you go, and pee early and often. Waiting to go at the restrooms on the next floor up ensures that those restrooms are either closed for repairs or being cleaned by the most diligent person in the world, who’s going to take so long that they carry a bucket, mop, and camping equipment in with them before posting the requisite “Closed for cleaning” sign.

4.  Be ready for other people to interfere with your plans. In particular, beware of groups of tourists.  Here’s an example. In 1996, Mark and I visited the Louvre. The place was fairly empty, as we were there in November. So I’m minding my own business in a quiet room, leaning over a glass case to examine some coins inside. Behind me, I hear the sound of a stampede, and about 80 Japanese tourists, led by a guide holding up an pole with the national flag on it, trot into the room. They squish into the inadequate space, bending me over the case so that my cheek is squashed down on the glass. I can’t breathe and briefly consider whether asphyxiation by Japanese tourist is a recognized cause of death in France. The guide delivers a quick spiel, the crowd murmurs its approval, and they all turn around and trot out again to go terrorize some other poor soul in another part of the place. Museuming is not for the faint of heart, my friends. 

5. You have to make the experience your own. Sometimes this means not taking the exhibits too seriously. When Mark and I were first dating, I suggested we go see a showing of Kandinsky’s works at the Houston Museum of Fine Art. Mark agreed to go but was, I think, not exactly taken with abstract expressionism. I guess they don’t have a lot of that in Baytown, where he grew up. Anyway, he grew restive and started, in the nicest possible way, to express his opinion that Kandinsky had pretty much painted amoebas, golf courses, and amoebas playing on golf courses. I should have been mad, but it was all just so funny that it was hard to make it out of the exhibition without descending into gales of laughter which would have made sense to no one else in the room. We now routinely find the funny aspects of serious pieces. On Sunday at the Bode, for example, we saw a painting entitled “The Wave.” Having been to a zillion baseball games, we (briefly) did the wave in front of the painting. You just can’t take this stuff too seriously. 

At the same time, you should recognize the serious when you see it. At another museum here, we viewed a white marble sculpture by Antonio Canova. He was an Italian sculptor of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The piece is called The Dancer, and it’s so lifelike and graceful and masterful that I swear you can see the movement of the dancer’s skin under her robe as she moves in time to music only she can hear. I wanted to plop down on the cold white marble floor and cry for the sheer mastery of the craft and beauty of the work. This is the same feeling I get every time I see the Nike in the Louvre, too, but museum guards probably discourage weeping in the galleries. It makes the floors even slipper than they already are.

Making a museum your own also means that you get to like whatever you like. One of my friends expressed disappointment in the Mona Lisa, because it’s small and lots of people muscle their way in to see it. I think it’s exquisite partly because it’s not the size of a billboard, and it’s not the painting’s fault that apparently some tourists hire offensive linemen from the NFL to clear their path to its display case. I could study this painting all day, so if it gets stolen again, you’ll know I’ve finally put all of that reading about crime to good use.

Finally, museuming allows you to ask your own questions. I don’t have enough knowledge of art to comment on things like perspective and brush strokes; I couldn’t tell you a chiaro from an oscuro to save my life. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting questions to ask about a work. If your feet hurt after lots of walking, which they will, you’ll take the first available seat, no matter what pieces this move lands you near. I recently was marooned near a painting of a sunset with a totally incongruous yellow streak in its pinks and blues. To kill time while my feet recovered, I asked myself, why yellow? Did the artist have a bit left in the tube and operated on the principle of waste not, want not? Or maybe the guy who commissioned the picture stared at a pink and blue earlier version and remarked, “Hmm, don’t you think it could use a bit of yellow to cheer it up a bit?” I’ll never know, but the speculation kept me amused. Or you can play count the portraits  where the clothes were much more fun to paint than the faces. Elaborate, starched Elizabethan neck ruffles (rebatos, to the initiated), golden-threaded damask vestments, dark swirling velvet gowns, and blood-red rubies mounted in elaborate gold and silver rings must be much more of a painterly challenge than the zillionth prosperous, round guy with pudgy fingers and nose hairs that you discreetly omit from the portrait. Let’s get real here.

So that’s my list for museuming. It occurs to me, though, that this isn’t a bad list for living, either. Plan ahead. Take care of yourself. Be careful. Live authentically. It also occurs to me that maybe this overlap isn’t coincidental. Maybe the world is a museum, filled with things to look at and appreciate and marvel at. Maybe Mona Lisa is sitting next to me at the Starbucks where we’ve stopped for a quick warm-up and coffee. Maybe the woman in the red parka and the blue Pom-Pom hat swaying her toddler on her hip as she waits for the S Bahn train is Canova’s dancer. And I’ll be damned if there isn’t a preposterous streak of yellow splat in the middle of today’s  pink and blue sunset. So tell you what. You go on ahead to the next museum. I’m just going to sit here a minute and look around.