Mantle

Wild French Camargue horses splash into their white reflections. The sun is setting, the sky and sea turn pink, coral, orange. What will it be like? How does the sea smell, how loud the thundering hoofs? I’m sure that it will be breathtaking. I say, “it will be,” because I intend to see it in person.

William Ireland’s Camargue found a place above my mantle this week, and these horses greet me as I reflect at the end of a long day. Their promise affects me already. I’m inspired to plan the trip slowly but surely. Perhaps a Photosafari from Marseille. Maybe a side trip from a tour of ancient ruins in Provence. The more time I spend with these horses, the more I want to be in motion.

I clear the mantle just below Camargue. Yes, I’m one of those people. I change mantle decor, preferring variety over perfection. After hanging the work and putting only a couple of items back, something is missing, but I am convinced it’s something I don’t already have. Candlesticks, maybe crystal or light wood, but somehow different than what had been there before. A search for worthy accessories begins.

This isn’t my first rodeo. I’m into antiques, and unique pieces, and I’m often luckier online than I would be hoofing it through the local mall. I head on over to my standbys: Chairish, 1st Dibs, Ruby Lane, and Etsy.

Hour one rolls into hour two. I begin to believe the chances of finding a match are stacked in the house’s favor. So many options to go through, even with the best filters. I filter items to my price range, but periodically find something gorgeous only to see its price expressed in thousands.

I scroll on with that sense that the winning item might be just ahead. Random Reward. My mouth is dry from holding my breath in anticipation. Shouldn’t there be a cocktail server coming by to take a drink order? The three-across and five-across image displays on these sites even resemble the one-armed bandits of Vegas and Atlantic City.

I watch images I’ve already come across popping up a second and third time, blended back into the results. Considering how efficient I am at scrolling, these could qualify as subliminal messages. “I’ll take an icy cold coke and those Val St Lambert crystal candlesticks, please. I don’t know why, I just really feel I need them!”

I’d like to say I wrap it up on my own, but I run that iPad until the battery dies. The next day, standing in front of the Camargue, inspired by their motion, I decide to get off my tail and trot to some local stores. In store three, I find candles poured with a spiraling pattern. I hadn’t set out for that. Still, the sense of upward motion seems more interesting than the solid tapers. Minutes later, they are mine.

Now we were getting somewhere. Emboldened, I head further west to a mall where I hope to find many stores offering home furnishings. Maybe some mainstream candlesticks will do, now that the candles are unique.

When I arrive, though, I am greeted with a venue much diminished. I realize with sadness how long it’s been since I ventured here. I’ve been to malls east of me which are closer to the DC metro area, but not west, deeper into suburbia. Of the pre-pandemic five department-store anchor tenants, all that remains is a Macy’s without any home furnishings or crystal to speak of, and a JC Penney. No Pottery Barns, Crate & Barrels, Ballard Designs, or other home decor stores. Many storefronts are empty. Even some of the escalators aren’t running.

The lack of stores and inventory make hours of online candlestick roulette seem like a dream shopping excursion. I decide the only upside is that I’m actually getting exercise finding nothing, instead of sitting in a chair finding nothing. Eventually, I drown my sorrows in a cup of cinnamon sugar Auntie Anne’s pretzels that I would strap on like a feedbag if I could. I take my spiral candles and make my way home.

Back at the ranch, I stand before the horses, holding my spiral prizes up to see whether I can claim anything from the day. I’m struck by how well they work together. These horses, or at least the painting of them, has a sense of movement and action. It’s one of the things I love about this piece. The candles’ ever-upward spirals move with the horses. There is no weighing down here.

My body and my mind are also in motion thanks to the miles I’ve walked over hours. I reach for a set of my own antique rosewood candlesticks, where dark carved dragons wind their way from bottom to top. The spiral candles slip into the bases, a perfect fit. It’s not at all what I imagined at my sedentary beginning. It’s much better.

To beach or not to beach

Since my early twenties, I’ve dreamed of the looking down at the ocean waves through walls of glass in an ocean front condo; dreamed of turning to the door and heading down for a sandy walk and a salty swim. That I’m even entertaining the idea that beach living may not be my endgame intimates how much I and the world around me has changed in the past couple of years.

I had a clear picture of my future self sunning against the backdrop of shimmering waves and a warm breeze. I’d begun researching before the pandemic, and could envision great scoping vacations in resort areas across the country. I even considered a minor career adjustment that would have made all of it easier.

Fast forward to today, our pandemic limits travel, inflation floats beach properties higher each day, and my brush with cancer makes me wonder at times what lies ahead. I’ve started rethinking where I see myself in my future years, and how long I’m willing to wait to get there. In a few years I’ll have an empty nest. And if this pandemic EVER subsides, I’ll be able to begin vacationing again. But will I research areas near beaches as I’d planned? I’m not sure.

During my early research I bumped into a legitimate issue. As you know if you’ve read my earlier post about a writing contest, I’ve developed an aversion to dark water. And frankly part of it is predatory fish. Although I grew up near the beach and frequently swam in ocean and bay water with low visibility, I’ve developed some trepidation. Still, though, something more insidious crept in. It’s the changing value I place on the conveniences I have.

Post pandemic and post cancer treatment, I’ve come to value how connected my current location is to everything I could need. Paths and natural wooded areas allowed us to continue outside activities when indoor areas closed down. A nearby metropolitan area means access to all manner of deliveries and services. When searching for medical care I found exceptional doctors and facilities in my own back yard. They’re things I thought I didn’t need, and yet somehow they’ve become table stakes.

So were I bent on a beach relocation, I’d be looking for a place with crystal clear water, mild climates year round, recreational places and spaces to enjoy, city-style amenities reasonably close by, world class medical resources, close to a major airport and highways so I can easily stay connected to family and friends. Did I miss anything? And is there any chance this place exists?

This week, as I shopped in one of the four grocery stores a stone’s throw from my house, Coastal Living magazine with an island life feature caught my eye. It occurred to me that if I’m never going to be happy without clear water sans predatory fish, maybe I should just stop this seaside search and consider being happy with a pool.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but it was a practical thought, so I stood for a couple of minutes and let it settle in. Given that I was in an obvious crisis, I did what my fellow Americans do in times of crises: I bought stuff.

Don’t worry, it was nothing big. I purchased two magazines: Coastal Living and Traditional Home. I wanted to explore what resonated and what didn’t. During my first flip through Coastal Living, I found that some of the coasts were beautiful…if I also had a pool, because I wasn’t loving those brownish green waves. Needing a pool defeats some of the purpose of moving to the beach. Shifting to Traditional Home, there was some appeal to the thought that I wouldn’t have to swap out French country furnishings for conch shells, sand dollars and shiplap. Over the years I’ve lost my affinity for classic coastal decor. It’s fun for a vacation, but it wouldn’t be my every day choice.

Moving beyond the superficial is going to take a little more courage. It’s not so often we wrestle with letting go of something we’ve held on to for so many years. So I’ll take some deep breaths and I’ll flip through more pages. Because a lot has changed for all of us. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that any successful rebuilding can only be done by being honest with ourselves about what we need, what we want, what has passed, and what may yet lie ahead.

How comfortable can you get with a changing world order?

If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be reading a book on “Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order”, you would have heard a long and hardy laugh. And yet here I am today, listening to author Ray Dalio on Audible, hoping to gain a perspective that will make the contents of The Economist remotely digestible this week.

I rarely read magazines cover to cover, whether digital or hard copy. I find an article or two of interest, then move on. Not so today, as I wondered, would be wise to go full monty for a change? Well, it might be wise, but one look at the table of contents sent me running.

From The Economist’s Americas section, I could choose between articles on COVID, electoral administration, insurrection, “Mexico’s bad, mad energy plan”, or video games in Brazil. Oh, but the video games article was actually about video games expressing the political divide. Or I could turn to Asia, with offerings like, “Myanmar’s defectors”, “Omicron in India”, or “Unrest in Kazakhstan”.

Before you tell me to turn my attentions to Glamour if I want to read horoscopes and happy handbag stories, let me say that The Economist bills itself as including politics, science, business, culture, and the arts. It’s just that the rampant rise of bad news crowds all else from its pages.

When the pandemic first hit, I wished that I’d understood more about how previous generations had handled their own pandemics, and how their cultures, countries, and economies had evolved as a result. I reasoned this holy grail of knowledge could inspire some optimism in darker days. But I was distracted by the strain of living in our maddening world, and by my gratitude in being able to still experience beautiful moments in the face of our hardships.

Well, good news. Turns out Ray was doing a study of the rise and decline of empires at around the same time, and if I understand the press correctly, he incorporated the info I was wondering about into his new book. Unfortunately, the audible version is nearly 14 hours long. Fortunately, Ray’s intro says I can feel free to skip whatever sections I want. Woohoo!! Freedom!!

So I have embarked on this reading in the hope that insights into evolving world orders from a historical context will neutralize some of the anxieties that one can’t help but feel when faced with the barrage of bad news. I am cautiously optimistic. I mean, as optimistic as anyone can be about world order changing.

Memories behind the lenses and brush strokes.

I love taking pictures…of people taking pictures. Not just anyone. People I know. It’s exciting to capture the moment of experience, the moment when someone finds something so interesting they’d like to keep it. I remember being there with them, and sneaking the pic. My family is used to it by now, so they usually wave me off when they catch me. I remain undeterred. There’s no winning without trying.

This picture taken at Big Fork in Montana is only precious to me now because I remember the people in it, and being part of that group and experiencing it together. The view attracted us to the spot, but the memories aren’t about the water, the trees, the sun, or the rocks. They’re about the people.

Big Fork, Montana.

I also don’t need entire bodies in my pictures, as you can see from the Hollywood Star in this post. Seeing our sneakers instantly reminds me of huddling together to get our feet in the pic, the giggles, jostling, and c’mon’s that accompanied our “star” photos that day. Remembering where we were, how we felt, and what we were doing, is the best part of photos.

It’s rare, but every so often, even if we’re not in the picture I remember and appreciate it. Like when we’d spent a few days trying – and failing – to see the Hollywood sign through the fog and smog from every go-to lookout point known to man. Then my husband had the now-legendary idea of just getting in a cab and asking the driver to take us to a spot to see it, and did that ever work! We were ecstatic when it came into view. It was the hard-won victory, as much as the breathtaking scene.

One great idea and $22 or $32 later…We saw Hollywood despite the fog!

I’ve had the reverse emotional experience with artwork, where I’ve arrived at a place I’d seen only in pictures. It seems surreal to be there, in it, to smell and hear and feel the wind, and know the place better. The Square of Saint Mark’s, Venice, by Canaletto was a popular work in the 1970’s. I grew up seeing reproductions of it. Standing in St. Mark’s Square on our honeymoon years later, I welled with tears, realizing that I now knew what was on the other side of that pink building if you walked to the water, knew what was on the other sides of the square, and knew how it felt to walk on the stones and dance there with a man I loved.

Canaletto’s The Square of St. Mark’s

The pandemic offered opportunities for many amazing photographers to take pictures of what the New York Times called “The Great Empty”, allowing us to see normally crowded but now empty spaces. The pictures are at once beautiful and heartbreaking, as we see a new view of the bones of the places, but we also know the fear, grief, and anguish that forced people to stay away long enough for photographers to capture these photos.

Monastiraki Square, Athens, Greece (photo by Savvas Karmaniolas)

I wonder what people will think of these empty scenes when they look back years from now. Though we are all changed forever as a result of what’s behind the photos, I hope that many will recall finding the strength they didn’t know they had, finding community in unexpected places, and helping each other through to better times. And eventually, I hope they make and remember new memories of dancing in the many squares of our world.

Paris, France, May 2021. Dancing Argentine couples tango at Tracadero square (photo by Krzysztof Pazdalski)

Jeff Bezos: Dud or Demigod?

Earlier this year, I stood in front of the Whole Foods bakery section contemplating which of several yummy whole grain seeded rolls to get. A man who was striking even with his pandemic mask had walked in behind me a few minutes before as I entered the store. I realized he was again behind me at the bakery when I heard him saying, “You’re super-cute”. It was not something you normally hear at the grocery store, and he followed it up by asking if I was married. I later laughed about it with a friend saying that if I’d been interested in finding a guy during a pandemic, even that Jeff Bezos could have arranged for me.

There’s no shortage of unsavories that come up in Bezos-related conversations. He’s been credited with perpetuating climate change, disrupting small businesses, destroying book stores, departments stores, and retail sales as we knew them. He’s been accused of running sweat shops, chilling whistleblowing, illegal union-busting, and more. I abhor all of those things. I literally work to prevent that sort of business conduct and the harm it does. And I don’t know which of the integrity-related accusations will prove true, which I find especially troubling.

Still, the companies and services Bezos founded, nurtured, and empowered have undeniably improved my life over the years. As Quartz put it, his legacy is “complicated”. But here’s what I think of when I see his name.

  • When my mom was sick and the pandemic prevented me from driving across several states to shop for her, I could order food, supplies, and comforts from Amazon. I ordered supplies for my home, too. No one else could get them there.
  • In a year when I had two kids still in diapers, I ordered nearly every Christmas gift for family and friends from Amazon as they slept, at all hours of the day and night. And I was happy with the selections. For a new mom, that was a big deal.
  • Zappos saved me from repeated trips to and from shoe stores with two disinterested little boys who would say anything fit just to go watch SpongeBob or hit Build-A-Bear. Let’s not minimize how much those saved hours matter when you’re working full time and trying to be a good parent.
  • The Washington Post kept me from losing my sanity many times, especially in recent years. Enough said on that.
  • Audible helps me get through books when I otherwise couldn’t, like when I’m walking the dog, getting exercise, or just don’t want to look at more words on pages or screens. Bringing books in a high-quality audible form at scale has made books accessible to many people who wouldn’t or couldn’t otherwise experience them.
  • Alexa turns on my lights, helps me turn them off when I’ve forgotten, and serves up my shopping list while I’m at the grocery store. She even includes the items my sons add, like, “New brother” and “Every chocolate toaster strudel on the shelf”. So I get some good laughs in, as well.
  • Earlier this summer, as the DC-MD-VA area experienced its “rash” of mite bites following our summer of cicadas, used Cortisone-10 that Amazon delivered to my door in less than 24 hours. I had visited three pharmacies for ANY anti-itch or rash treatment. The shelves looked like the toilet paper shelves in March 2020. I got back in my car after pharmacy three and ordered it from my phone, there in the parking lot.

Given my gratitude for all Bezos’s companies have done for me over the years, I was dismayed by a recent email from Washingtonian with the subject, “Bye Bezos”. It was actually an advertisement from their ad partner, The Rounds, offering to keep my home stocked in a way that was “basically nothing like Amazon”. And they were right – it was nothing like Amazon. Curious, I went onto the site and clicked on a picture of a water bottle only to see that the description said it came in cans. Compass coffee was offered in small-sized containers leading to more than twice as many trips for the same volume I would get in one order on Amazon. Same with detergents and fabric softeners, which they offered in 3-pod packages. (That’s not a typo. Three pods.)

Their compelling feature – reusable packaging and the picking up of used packaging from me – sounded responsible. But I wondered how allowing them to transport my used packaging back to their site to recycle saved anything over me walking it to the curb for my own weekly recycle service, or just reusing it myself. Given all that, slams at Bezos and Amazon seemed cheap and ill-directed. I wondered who thought mud-slinging would be the most effective marketing strategy for the altruistic, sustainability-concerned crowd.

If I were writing a classic play, I wouldn’t suggest Bezos was a god. He definitely has feet of clay. But his beyond-mere-mortals track record of turning remotely-plausible visions into my everyday reality puts him close to demigod territory. I’m interested in watching what else he might do now that he’s stepped away from his CEO role. And I’m not quite ready to say, “Bye,” just yet.

A mother and daughter laugh and enjoy each other in a tent made of sheets and twinkle lights

I want to support choice, but I love too much.

There was an underlying narrative in the first wave of the pandemic that the people hit hardest were those who had lived their lives as they wanted and made their own choices. Many victims were elderly. The narrative was that no one wanted to see them in pain or worse, but at least they’d led a long life and many were close to an end. Those who weren’t elderly often had co-morbidities. In some cases, the narrative went, these were brought on by choices to eat rich foods, not exercise, smoke, or otherwise enjoy the good life.

This wasn’t truly accurate, but it was a convenient sentiment that balanced support of personal choices, including the choice to remain unvaccinated. After all, weren’t they making what they believed to be a healthier choice for the long-term, based on their low-risk profile, or concern of complications from a less-than-ideally-tested vaccine? Shouldn’t everyone have the right to make that choice?

Now that Delta has arrived, that narrative is gone. In some states, over 99% of people over 64 years old are vaccinated, and those individuals aren’t dying. Children are getting sicker and dying. Some hospitals are stretched from helping adults who could have vaccinated but chose not to do it. Some hospitals are unable to continue giving non-COVID-related care to those who need it. Required – not elective – surgeries are being cancelled. There’s just not enough beds, rooms, or medical staff to accommodate everyone.

There are many people who don’t have a choice as to whether or not to vaccinate, including those with uncontrolled or unstable infections, and children. Children haven’t had a “long, rich” life. They did not make choices that increase their proclivity to contract or suffer from this illness.

To those who still choose not to vaccinate, I suggest thinking back to your child’s, godchild’s, niece’s, or nephew’s first grade school picture. See those big doe eyes and the little teeth in that smile. Someone who looks like that, and talks like that – who thinks like that and feels like that – is dying. They may be doing it amid a sea of strangers in a hospital hallway, without the comfort of even holding their mother’s hand, because hospital beds are filled with people who made a personal health choice.

This isn’t a personal health choice anymore. It’s a community health crisis. And it’s time to start caring beyond our own health profile. I wouldn’t support a friend who habitually drove drunk because they felt it was their right to take a chance that they’d get home safely or because they didn’t trust the Uber drivers. I wouldn’t do it because their actions put so many other innocent lives at risk. I would love them, but I wouldn’t support that choice. So now, at the risk of evoking the crackly voice of Sally Struthers talking about the price of a cup of coffee, I’ve got to say I feel it’s time to save the children. Get vaccinated.

We hear when we’re ready.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic was that I no longer heard my sons dropping their middle-school and high-school backpacks like sacks of rocks onto foyer tiles. For a couple of years prior, I heard myself at least once a week explaining, cajoling, shouting to please be careful. To understand the tiles would break. To appreciate that the floor ran through three rooms and would “cost a fortune” to replace.

Hairline cracks emerged on several tiles at the foyer’s outer edges, and I would point these out as examples. I stood over said tiles, my pointer finger calling out the new defects. I do not recall anyone else bending down to take a look or an interest. Blank stares.  After the schools had closed, I remember picking up one of the backpacks and retiring it to the closet. I literally whispered to my floor that it would be safe for a while.

One day last month, my son called me to the foyer to direct my attention to a particular tile. He pointed to it, two hairline fissures spreading from a point of impact. I recognized the tile as one of the first to show signs of distress some years back. “It’s cracked,” he announced. I stared blankly at the tile and at him. In my brain, a man in sooty engineer’s overalls and cap shoveled coal into a steam engine, and a high-pitched whistle began to sound. I blinked and caught my words. With relative calm, I inquired if it could possibly have been from the backpacks I’d been shouting about for years. Had I really invested so much time and effort, only to come to this moment of “unprompted” epiphany? 

We try so hard to share messages in every way we can. Sometimes a person just isn’t ready to hear. It happens to all of us, in the reverse, too. Sometimes the universe pushes things right in front of us, and we’re like, “What? Huh? I don’t get it.” It’s all just noise until we’re ready for it.

That fact came back to me recently. I’m blessed to have a dear friend who is a phenomenal holistic coach. She was giving me some nutrition guidance and I was lapping it up like a desert traveler at an oasis. I was all intrigued by this “new” information. Then she asked, laughing, if I had paid ANY attention to the nutrition session of the yoga retreat we’d been on several years ago. “Uh, nutrition session?” I sputtered, prompting us to laugh harder. Survey says: I guess I didn’t!

I vividly remembered nearly everything about that life-changing retreat…except the nutrition session. Since that conversation I’ve realized that I actually do recall some of the nutrition session topics, and had even incorporated elements into my life when I returned home. But I must have been in denial about how important it was at the time, and I really didn’t give it it’s due. Fortunately, now I’m ready.