Artsy fartsy

art·sy-fart·sy/ˌärtsēˈfärtsē/adjective INFORMAL•DEROGATORY
1. associated with or showing a pretentious interest in the arts.

No one would ever call me artsy fartsy. This, despite the fact that my father was an architect and a watercolorist. Let’s just say I didn’t get his art gene! Mind you, I love visiting the Chicago Art Institute–but mainly because I like to see the famous paintings in real life like Sunday Afternoon and Nighthawks and Child’s Bath and American Gothic. And I’m one of those I-know-what-I-like type of museum goers. When it comes to art, I’m usually out-of-my-comfort-zone.

But this past month I’ve seen some fine art– both as in fine art, and fine. art. Friend Denice and I went to the Muskegon Museum of Art to see an exhibit of Patricia Polacco, children’s book writer and illustrator. The exhibit was in honor of teachers and so it was fitting that I attend with Denice, a retired school librarian and book store colleague in our previous lives. My familiarity with children’s books ended with my time at Pooh’s Corner (a children’s bookstore), so I wasn’t familiar with the illustrations on exhibit, but I sure did fall in love with some new titles. Especially An A from Miss Keller, in which Tricia takes Miss Keller’s creative writing class and gets the greatest accolade of all–Miss Keller’s comment, “You’ve given your words wings.” Now that, my friends is what I miss about being in the classroom–the opportunity to watch kids soar.

My Town recently installed public art on electrical boxes throughout the downtown area. Based on Kate Schatz’s children’s book Rad Women A-Z the twenty-six installations feature rad(ical) women from Angela Davis to Zora Neal Hurston. Represented are women in entertainment, the arts, science, and civil rights. I was lucky enough to join up with a walking tour of the exhibit that just happened to include the ribbon cutting for the installation–and writer Schatz walked along, too! The boxes were painted by local women artists during Women’s History Month. We walked up hills and down and heard stories of incredible women, many I’d never heard of before. (Look up the Grimke sisters and Lucy Parsons.)

Can you say “Carol Burnett”?!

It might be telling that both exhibits were inspired by children’s books where, my experience tells me, the best writing and artwork is often to be found–and certainly the greatest Truths.

Perfect for a beginner like me.

Love and Marriage

What I read

Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport are on their way up. College educated young professionals in Atlanta they are confident and accomplished–Roy, in the business world; Celestial in the arts. Theirs would be a good life, stepping from one rung on the ladder of success to the next.

Their marriage isn’t perfect: there is her fierce independence and his flirtations. Their marriage is young: only eighteen months give or take. But love? They had it. Passion. Check. Commitment. You betcha.

And then Roy and Celestial’s world turned on its head after a night in a small town hotel when Roy, a good Samaritan, is accused of rape, arrested, and convicted. But innocent, no doubt.

What happens to that marriage when the couple is separated? Roy’s sentence is twelve years, but Celestial’s lawyer uncle gets busy appealing the conviction, and, for a time, weekend visits and letters seem to hold the marriage together.

Until it falls apart. Celestial’s hand-sewn dolls–and the artist herself–gain some fame. A woman has needs. Not only for sex, but for companionship and a co-created life. It is in the human soul to want a partner. So Celestial finds herself a married woman engaged to another man.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones also tells the story of parents who drop the ball and parents who never even caught it. Of parents who play the game with skill. Jones explores love and loss and the glue holds men and women together. Or doesn’t. Hers is a tender perspective on that old proverb that the greatest act of love is letting go.

What I lived

I’ve done this marriage thing twice. It’s complicated. Even more so when the principle players don’t have their shit together and must explore the idea that they might have built a house of cards.

Or not.

When it comes to love and loss, I tend to side with Glennon Doyle’s Love Warrior philosophy. But that requires a whole lot of vulnerability and willingness to trudge through the muck. Sometimes that just ain’t happening for one of the players or another. Sometimes the warrior becomes a conscientious objector.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

Sisters & secrets: The Ninth Hour

What I read

Alice McDermott is one of my favorite writers. I haven’t read all her work, but That Night and Charming Billy are books that have stayed with me. McDermott’s characters are finely drawn and her sense of what it is to be human is spot on.

The Ninth Hour is no exception. It’s a story of women who, while their lives might be restricted by the actions of men, are enlivened by a circle of women. Annie is young, newly married, and pregnant when her husband Jim gasses himself in their Brooklyn tenement. The Church refuses him a Catholic burial and Annie is bereft. The Little Nursing Sisters of the Poor step in. Sister St. Savior and Sister Jeanne prepare Jim’s body and sit vigil with Annie. They see to the burial in an unmarked grave. And they put Annie to work in the convent laundry with Sister Illuminata, a demanding taskmaster who comes to care for Annie in her gruff way.

Annie’s life–and, in turn, her daughter Sally’s–is as full as life can be for a poor widow and orphan in the early years of the twentieth century, and most of that can be attributed to the safe harbor the nuns provided. But as her years of mothering Sally come to an end, Annie feels drawn to the convent’s milkman Mr. Costello. She misses the companionship of a man. Sally, meanwhile, contemplates becoming a postulant and in her training begins to care for Mrs. Costello, his invalid wife, in their home. The story opens with the cover up of Jim’s suicide–and from there the secrets snowball.

The Ninth Hour is a story about the weight of secrets and how our lives often pivot on a single word left unsaid or an act concealed. Deceit can throw a shadow over an otherwise happy life–but it is for each of us to decide what good might be possible should what was hidden come into the light.

What I lived

I must admit I’m always a little shy around Catholic sisters. As a convert I don’t have the stories so many cradle Catholics revel in telling–there were no sisters rapping knuckles or throwing chalkboard erasers in my Protestant upbringing. But I also don’t have a sense of familiarity and ease around them, either. They are a bit mysterious.

Despite the fact that women religious are under the thumb of the Church’s patriarchy, the sisters I’ve met are curiously powerful women. And despite the sacrifices they make as religious, their sense of agency is solid. (One sister I knew would loudly replace “Him” with “God” in the liturgy wherever possible.) Or maybe I’m just judging sisters based on my own biases. I do take weekly yoga classes at the local Dominican Center, and, on occasion attend one program or another the sisters offer–I’ve walked the labyrinth and zoned out with Zentangle; I’ve meditated on the St. Francis sculpture path. Yesterday I took a class on the rosary. I admire the Dominican sisters’ spirituality and commitment to social justice. But it’s stories like The Ninth Hour that help me understand these strong women.

Looking forward, turning back: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

What I read

I’ve been glancing over Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk for over a year now. The book’s cover showed up in New Yorker ads for a time and on my Amazon “Customers who bought this also bought” feed and on the digital galley platform to which I belong. I’ve passed it on the “We Recommend” table at the bookstore. Stopped. Read the cover blurbs about New York (I’ve never been), 1930s (not even I am not that old!), walking (on a good day, yes …) and just figured it wasn’t for me.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish is everything I want in a good character: she is witty, perceptive, brutally honest, open-minded, and loyal. She’s also a bit tetchy. Yes, Lillian does traipse through New York City of an evening–New Year’s Eve, no less–but along the way she stops where she experienced some monumental shift in her eighty-four years. There’s the Back Porch, a corner bar where she stopped over the years for a cocktail and maybe a chit chat with the bartender. Delmonico’s, where she and her husband ate after the court date that finalized their divorce. Madison Square Park, where she lunched as a working gal and wrote her poetry. And Macy’s, where she took the U.S. by storm in the thirties, the much-talked-about copy writer, highest paid girl advertiser in the country with newspaper headlines to prove it. St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she arrived when life spun out-of-control.

And that’s how we learn her story. At each stop Lillian reflects on her life–and also meets someone in the present with whom she can connect. Because even though Lillian is eighty-four-years-old, she is forward thinking. We learn that her early life is by turns tragic and comic; her life now, a dance between reaching out and turning inward. As the night creeps closer to 1985, the reality of having one foot in the past, and one in the future becomes oh-so-poignant, and Lillian welcomes the time when the future is no more, when the end will arrive:

“The future and I are just about even, our quarrel all but resolved. I welcome its coming, and I resolve to be attentive to the details of its arrival. I plan to meet it at the station in my best white dress, violet corsage in hand …”


What I lived

I started Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk at home on my bed, tucked in snug, everything around me dear and familiar. I finished it on an airplane returning from a visit with my son and his family.

And there’s nothing like a visit with one’s distant children to look back over life, even if only the motherhood part. (Although, truth be told, distance provides space to think about any number of life’s conundrums.) I did some things right. And some things pretty crappy. I wanted my family to be just. so. I wanted to get it right. (And you wouldn’t be inaccurate if you read “controlling” there.) I pushed and prodded at times when I should have offered a hug and one more episode of Power Rangers. I was a hard taskmaster when I should have let the dishes wait until morning. I accepted no backtalk when I should have let my chicks puff out their feathers a bit.

Somehow we survived and somehow we are reasonably amiable.

But Lillian’s experience is now in my field of view. Yes, the future is still out there a ways before I meet it, God willing, and knowing that means I have some time. Time to reach out while turning in. Time to figure out how I’ll “meet it at the station”. Time to figure out what I’ll leave in my wake.

The child is the mother of the woman

Birds of a Feather
Jacqueline Winspear
Soho Press (2004)

If Maisie Dobbs had had a child, she would have been Flavia de Luce. Now, I know, I know–Flavia has had a perfectly good mother in Harriet. But, readers, really!

Last week I read the second in the Maisie Dobbs series, Birds of a Feather. And while I wasn’t averse to the first Maisie mystery (I don’t think I even reviewed it here) I found it a little … plodding. At least for a whodunit. But I had another reaction altogether when I read the second in the series, Birds of a Feather. It’s obvious why Jacqueline Winspear is up to fifteen novels and counting.

It’s 1930, the Great War is now over a decade behind her, yet Maisie’s world is still reeling from its effects: she continues to mourn (and pay hospital visits to) her comatose fiance Simon, and assistant Billy Beale is dealing with the pain of his injuries in a destructive way. But Maisie still has work to do. In this case, to find the daughter of grocery magnate Joseph Waite. Seems that his daughter Charlotte has disappeared (again, I might add) and it’s Maisie’s job to find her and bring her home to her overbearing father.

In the meantime, however, Charlotte’s friends start showing up dead. All killed the same way: first poisoned by morphine and then stabbed multiple times. Maisie suspects that Charlotte’s disappearance, Waite’s insistence that she return even under force, and the women’s deaths are connected–and she’s off an running.

What gives the Maisie Dobbs novels a bit of … errrrr … novelty is the mystic gift she relies on. Maisie senses–sees–hears things at the crime scene that others cannot. She also practices meditation which calms and centers her and allows her to receive insight that helps solve crimes. A bit of New Age in the Jazz Age. I’ll have no problem picking another Maisie Dobbs mystery when I need a fun read.

But I digress. Maisie Dobbs could very well be the mother of Flavia de Luce, at least in spirit. HOW HAVE I NOT READ ANYTHING ABOUT THIS ON THE INTERWEBS?! The Maisie novels are set in 1930 and the Flavias in the early fifties. Okay, so maybe grandmother instead of mother. But it’s as if the characters are genetically related: independent, out-of-the-box thinking women with unique talents. Women who don’t quite fit their time and place because of their gifts. Women who don’t have much of a filter. And the evolution from Maisie to Flavia makes sense if you think about how one generation changes from the previous. Maisie relied on the metaphysical and Flavia on the physical world of chemistry.

I searched the internet for fan fiction, thinking “Who could pass up such an opportunity?!” But, nothing. All I found was a bunch of “If you liked this, you’ll also like …” posts. I tried to find an interview of the authors–maybe on a panel at some writing conference. Nada. You’re telling me no publisher has ever thought of booking these two headliners together?!

For now, I guess, I’ll dream on my own what mischief these Girl Wonders could conjure up together. What a team they would make!