Report from the Widowhood: Rituals of Grief

 

Diagnosis Day: The Sky

Diagnosis Day: The Sky

            I knew my husband was ready to die, even before he wound up in the hospital in July. At the hospital, doctors discovered he had prostate cancer and that it had spread to his bones. We had also just learned that what doctors had diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease was something far more brutal and swift: Multiple System Atrophy. MSA hadn’t yet robbed Dick of the ability to speak, and one of the last things he said to me that final week was, “Please. Help me die!”

hospital

            He entered the hospital on Monday, July 13, and died Thursday night, July 16. Although I know he was ready to go, the hole he left is huge.

            Last month, my son and I marked the milestone of six months without Dick, his father for 21 years and my husband for 23 years.This seems like a good time to reflect on what has gotten me through this horrendous time: family, friends and ritual.

            After two decades of researching and writing about tradition and celebration, I had resources and reflexes that kicked in almost immediately. And still I was shocked by how profoundly the rituals I created, both tiny and large, worked. The rituals celebrated the man and our love, but also gave the grief a place to sit frankly and fully, taking up all the space in the room for the time it needed.

            At first, I was just trying to live within the screaming storm of grief, a time when I couldn’t bear to have the radio on or think about household chores. When just changing the calendar to another month gutted me, because that was a month Dick wouldn’t inhabit.

            But the rituals burst forth, fed by specific needs and encounters. The rituals helped shape the time and create vessels to carry the unruly feelings.

            First came the intimate reception I held in my living room just 10 days after my husband died. I had been talking to the pianist at church about coming to play and sing for my ailing husband at home, hoping to create a fun evening with friends. I went to church 3 days after his death, and the pianist said, “You know, I could still come to your house and play your husband’s favorite songs,” and I knew this was the perfect centerpiece for a mourning gathering.

            I called it an “Athiest’s Wake” (my husband was a vehement ex-Catholic), and threw myself into the planning, choosing the 10 songs that James would play, ordering food from Dick’s favorite Italian market, and sending invitations to more than 50 friends and family members.

            It was one of the most magical days of my life. The loss was still raw and shocking and people needed to talk about that and drink and eat and tell stories. Every detail seemed perfect: my sister-in-law brought flowers and herbs that had been transplanted from her late mother’s garden, and this precious, fragrant bouquet sat in the powder room. The music was cathartic beyond my imagining: It began with Dick’s favorite song, “Someone To Watch Over Me,” which I had sung to him (accompanied by Frank Sinatra on my cell phone) as he died, and ended with Sondheim’s “No One is Alone.” When James sang “Here Comes the Sun,” sunlight shot through the overcast sky. I sat with a box of tissues in my lap.

flowers

            As the music ended, I carried a bowl around the room and gave everyone a confetti popper. I wanted a percussive end to the ritual, and I told them we should celebrate our luck and joy in having had him so long in our lives. My grandbabe counted down, 3-2-1, and confetti flew everywhere!

            My next big task was the memorial service, to be held at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. I expected 200 people, many who had worked with my husband in public policy or politics. I wanted it to be personal and memorable and sweated the details, putting hours into the choice of photos for a slideshow. I asked my guitar-teacher friend Monica to play for the service because my husband loved classical guitar. The speakers were a perfect mix of family and friends, including one ex-Senator and a former Congressman.

            But perhaps the most poignant time for me was the reception, and the way I included my quilting passion. I had prepared plain muslin fabric for people to write specific messages to Dick’s daughter, son, sister and granddaughter. All of these messages will be included in the memorial quilts I’m working on. For my own memorial quilt, I had people write messages between the stripes of one of Dick’s shirts.

rcl shirt

            The holidays were raw but good, each encounter needing delicate navigation. Who would sit in my husband’s chair at Thanksgiving? That needed to be a conscious decision in advance, so the shock of the empty chair didn’t set the tone. Letting my son make the choice (he picked his half-sister) signaled a shift, not a forgetting.

           But frankly, a lot of what gets me through are daily rituals and modest talismans.

          While sorting through his things, I found a heavy circular “charm” that I had bought Dick for his keychain. One side has an angel and the words “someone to watch over me” (his favorite song) and the other side says “healing is a work of heart.” I put this token on a chain and started wearing it most days.

heart necklace

But I also wanted a tangible talisman to put in my purse, to carry everywhere I go, and I decided to use a pillbox I bought Dick with Shakespeare on the lid (and a snarky line about doctors). He always had his Parkinson’s medicine inside. There is something so comforting about this small, solid object, and when I am fumbling through my purse for tissues or lipstick, my fingers brush against it and I squeeze it. He comes back to me, and my shoulders lower.

pillbox

Two other rituals that have been key in this time are writing in my journal (my dear friend Mark Lipinski gave it to me at the wake) and being reflective about solo meals, especially dinner.

sun plate

I think any widow will tell you that eating and sleeping alone after so many years of togetherness feels stark and unsettling. Especially after months or years when so much of your life was dedicated to helping your spouse eat and sleep. So I spent time thinking about how to enhance my meals alone. I decided to eat dinner on a plate my mother gave me when I started my first job after college: so I would always have a face smiling back at me. Along with lighting candles before I ate, this made every meal a remembrance of my late mother as well as my husband.

journal

For all the dark side of grief, it does hollow out a person and help them discard a lot of thoughts and activities that don’t enhance life. That hollow place becomes sacred, and out of respect to your lost loved one and yourself, you want to fill it with beauty and meaning. For me, the bonus of this hard experience has been to rediscover my friends and family and to realize with joy that I am still loved.

12003418_10153545933254004_5273536002172425462_n

 

Top 10 Favorite Things on My Disney Cruise

 

The Perfect Metaphor

The Perfect Metaphor

 

     Let me start by explaining that I was a cruise skeptic. I always assumed that “taking” a cruise was like spending a week in a floating shopping mall, and I hate malls. I expected that there was little to do but lounge around, when not overeating ghastly food. 

      The only reason I agreed to take a week-long Disney cruise to the Caribbean is that I was trying to think of something my son could look forward to after his father died in July. Dick hadn’t felt well enough to travel for years, and I asked Max where he would like to go during his winter break from college. This is what he came up with, so I booked it. And though I was still dragging my feet when we flew to Florida on January 1, off we went, hoping to start a new year with fresh, happy memories. 

      Now that Max and I have returned home to freezing New Jersey, I’m here to admit that I was wrong, very very wrong. Let me start by explaining the image above, Donald Duck’s butt stuck in a porthole on the side of the Disney Fantasy, our ship home for a week. I decided it was the perfect metaphor to explain the special wow factor of a Disney cruise: you expect great service and a well-greased brand-delivery machine, but what gets you grinning is all the extras you didn’t expect. Hidden visual treats like Donald’s butt are what I mean, unadvertised treasures. And technology marvels, like when you are given a paper and marker to draw a person at the Animator’s Palate restaurant and by desert, it has been magically and musically animated along with those made by all the other diners. 

       And the sweet ritual of greeting as you begin the cruise: you enter the ship by walking between two rows of ship’s officers in crisp white uniforms, while your family is “announced.” When the smiling female crew member said, “Everyone, welcome the Leone family!” I got goosebumps (and then I started crying, because it made me think about the big hole in our family.)

       And so, I give you a Letterman-style Top 10 list as a way of sharing some of our favorite Disney cruise experiences from the past week:

        No. 10:  Star Wars

        We are Star Wars fans and since Disney owns that franchise now, the ship’s shops were overflowing with awesome movie merchandise. They showed the new film, The Force Awakens, multiple times on-board, and you could get your movie drink in a cup shaped like new droid BB8, and your popcorn in a bucket shaped like Darth Vader’s helmut. It was Max’s third time seeing the movie, and my second (he already owned the Boba Fett shirt, by the way.) 

IMG_5497

        No. 9: Port Adventures

 

        The add-on tours weren’t all great, especially on Tortola, a port Disney only added recently which is a pretty beaten-down looking port city in the midst of waterfront renovation. We got soaking wet in the rain, then pushed onto a bus that wouldn’t start, on the way to a too-hectic dolphin encounter. But I just loved walking around and looking at buildings and plants and whatever was for sale. I loved walking around St.Thomas’ port of Charlotte Amalie, and would definitely do more exploring/hiking in a future trip. Here is a beautiful church on that island on a perfect sunny Caribbean day.  

IMG_5447

        N0. 8: Pirate Night

                Every person on the ship was given a cute Pirates of the Caribbean kerchief, featuring Pirate Mickey, and the pirate theme included fun music, dancing, special drinks and food. At 10:30 pm, fireworks were shot from the ship’s deck and it was thrilling. Part of the fun was the creative and elaborate costumes: returning cruisers make their own, but the ship was stocked with outfits for every age. (Can you see the parrot puppet on this dude’s shoulder?)

IMG_5427

        No. 7: The Aqua Duck Waterslide

              One of the special attractions on the two newest Disney ships (out of 4) is a “water coaster” that shoots the rider through 765 feet of sharp turns and drops inside a 4-foot diameter tubing. At one point, the ride juts out over the ocean. This ride is part of the cool design of the main pool deck, deck 11, and part of the fun is watching people whoosh by and wave as they squeal. The lines are often quite long and another passenger on the cruise told me “That waterslide isn’t for grandmothers! Too bumpy,” so I was wary. But my son kept making chicken noises at me, and we finally tried out the Aqua Duck on the last cruise day, coming back early from the beach so the lines would be short. I loved it!!! Didn’t even lose my glasses, and if I go on a Disney cruise again, I will do this early and often. 

IMG_5379

        No. 6:  Castaway Cay

              The last port we visited, the last day of the cruise, was Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas. The weather was perfect and like everything else about the cruise, it was just so beautifully designed, organized so that every kind and category of person would find what she needed. The gung-ho exercisers could do the 5K run (or walk, or bike), while non-runners like me could opt for yoga on the beach. There is a lovely beach for families, but a short tram ride away is a beach where children aren’t allowed, aptly named Serenity Bay. It wasn’t crowded at the grownup beach, and people were constantly asking what drink you’d like brought over to your reclining chair. Those inclined could rent floats or snorkeling equipment, or sign up for parasailing. A full barbecue buffet was just steps away at lunch, part of the cruise prepaid menu. (Helping finish my beer is Gus, a sort of family mascot who always travels with us.)

IMG_5526

        No. 5: Live Shows & Everyday Spectacles

                I didn’t realize how much live entertainment there would be on a Disney cruise on top of the constant character appearances. Mickey and Donald and Goofy and Pluto were frequently available for photo ops, but so was Jessie from Toy Story and Captain Hook and Smee, and a wide assortment of Disney princesses. But there was also at least one, and often two daily live shows in the Walt Disney Theater. The early evening shows included a one-hour theatrical version of Aladdin that was extremely impressive ( though maybe a tad short of the promised “Broadway-level quality”) as well as shows with plots about contemporary people of various ages running into a staggering number of famous Disney characters running the gamut from Mary Poppins and Peter Pan to King Louie. There was a terrifically clever and funny juggler, a ventriloquist, a hypnotist and more. The theater itself was capable of all manner of cool effects, including shooting confetti or bubbles down from the ceiling. Because photography is forbidden, I’m sharing a photo of two adorable sisters in mermaid costumes standing outside the theater, since a great part of the daily spectacle was seeing all the children who had been transformed by Disney staff into princesses and mermaids (at considerable parental expense.) 

IMG_5491

        No. 4:  Meeting People

               It’s fair to say that I’m a much more social animal than my son, and I wondered how difficult it would be to strike up conversations with my nearly 5,000 fellow passengers. It was surprisingly easy, and some people I ran into over and over, so I frequently walked into an on-board venue and heard my name called. I especially got to know the other hearty souls who signed up for the 8:30 am Boot Camp sessions on the basketball court. And, it was a special pleasure getting to know the two women that Disney paired us with for dinner all week: Sharon and her daughter Sara from Connecticut. My guess is they put us together because Sharon’s daughter is the same age as Max, and he was very shy and quiet at the start, meeting this beautiful and confident young woman. We wound up having a blast, and here we are on the second to last night, “toasting” with Mickey-shaped ice cream bars (my eyes are closed, but my heart is open, what can I say? Photography was not our waiter’s forte.)

IMG_5498

        No. 3:  Most Amazing Customer Service Ever

                I checked customer satisfaction ratings, and knew that Disney’s are the highest in the business, but experiencing the lengths to which the crew will go was pretty incredible. It isn’t just the creative and amusing towel sculptures that you find on your bed each night, but the way problems are solved as they occur. For one dinner, I had made a reservation at Palo, one of two adults-only restaurants on the ship, which has a strict dress code. Although I told Max to pack dress slacks, he ignored me and packed only shorts and t-shirts (and books). I called the restaurant in a panic, and this is what they did: after getting Max’s size requirements, they brought multiple pairs of black pants to our stateroom for Max to try on, and a pair of size 11 men’s dress shoes. We bought a collared shirt on-board (a Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirt that Max will wear again), and were good to go. (Yep, that towel sculpture is a brontosaurus.)

IMG_5382

 

        No. 2: The Food

               OK, I was most wrong about the food. It was endless, but the overall quality was quite good, and the dinner at Palo (which costs us an extra $25) was quite exceptional. One of the things that pleased me is that while each dinner menu included heavier fare like Beef Wellington or duck, there was always one or more seafood options, plus a couple of extra “lighter fare” options. This was helpful because we picked the later dinner seating, 8:15, and I often sampled desert too. The portions at dinner reflected their understanding that food had been plentiful all day, including the Ice Cream station with 6 flavors of self-serve soft ice cream available from morning until 11 pm. At breakfast, there must have been 12 varieties of cereal alone (including hot oatmeal) and almost that many varieties of eggs. Every lunch included, on top of dozens of other choices, a huge heaping buffet of large cocktail shrimp and crab claws. Best of all, for me, there was loads of fruit everywhere, and it was possible and easy to eat healthy fare whenever I wanted it. Between Boot Camp and refusing to take the elevator on-board, I think I barely gained weight. 

IMG_5386

        No. 1: Real Relaxation

             Although Max and I tried to take as much advantage as possible of the many daily activities — I confess I could watch cute little girls being hugged by Disney princesses all day long and I even watched the baby crawling race (not joking) — there were also ample opportunities and venues for just reading one of the novels I brought, writing in my journal, lounging in the whirlpool, or studying the clouds. I skipped Bingo and didn’t feel obliged to try the alcoholic drink of the day every day, but I loved having many options. One of my favorite quiet places was this row of classic deck chairs on Deck 4, a place where passengers can also elect to walk or jog. This was the vacation that Max and I needed to rest and recharge. We came home refreshed, full of new memories, and eager to do it again!

IMG_5458

 

 

 

 

Serious Popcorn: 10 Classy Page-Turners

 rsz_serious_popcorn

        Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a lifelong book junkie. All my life, I wanted to write books because reading is my favorite way to spend my time. I’m a frequent reviewer on Amazon.com, and because I had done so many reviews that people said helped them, Amazon asked me to become a Vine voice. As a result, I get to choose from a free list of books that publishers are promoting, and add those to the books I discover through word of mouth; my beloved subscription to Publishers Weekly; the wonderful librarians at the Princeton Public Library and my addiction to the Sunday NY Times book review. This has worked out well: because I don’t just love to read, I’m excited about sharing my “finds” with other passionate readers. 

Recently, I was asked to contribute something to the annual church auction, and I decided to put together a basket of 10 books that I found compelling but substantial. Most were published in the last couple of years, and all are in paperback. I packed the basket with movie candy and microwave popcorn too, and called my auction item “Serious Popcorn.” I share the list with all my friends who are also always questing for the next awesome novel. Enjoy! 

Please, feel free to add a comment below recommending your latest must-read novel, or adding your 2 cents about any of these. 

(Warning: Some are breezy, some are deep, but don’t count on a happy ending.)

The Martian by Andy Weir     An astronaut left alone on Mars must figure out how to survive. A geeky novel in which a cheeky character keeps you on sofa’s edge.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson   A young Arab hacker is on the run from a brutal regime. Ripped from the headlines, but with genies.

Fledgling by Octavia Butler     What if there was a race of black vampires? This gripping, unusual 2005 novel turns the genre upside down, and if you haven’t read anything by the late great Octavia Butler, it’s about time. 

The Circle by Dave Eggers   A naïve young woman starts work at a Google-like tech giant and Eggers tells a chilling tale about where all our “connectedness” leads.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson   Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, this chilling tale gives you an epic protagonist and a glimpse inside North Korea.

A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam     Harrowing story told from both the viewpoints of humans and chimpanzees, this book really makes you think.

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker   Let a Harvard grad who edits a magazine for lawyers write fantasy, and you get a book so clever, it’s like Harry Potter for grownups.

Submergence by J.M. Ledgard   Jihadist fighters in Africa, a tryst between an undercover spy and a microbiologist — this book was named one of the best of 2013 by NPR, the NY Times, Library Journal and a whole lot of smart readers.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes     Because there has to be at least one genuine tear-jerker in the group. Can 5,000 5-star reviews on Amazon be wrong?

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer   The first book in a trilogy about a spooky region called Area X and the four women sent to explore. One critic called it “a novel about weird science that’s genuinely weird.” BTW, my 20-year-old son loved it.

Unknown

QuiltCon 2015: So Many Kinds of Bliss

 

images     My feet are touching the ground once again, but I swear that didn’t happen for the first couple of days after I came home from QuiltCon in Austin. For those who don’t know, this is a quilt show put on by the Modern Quilt Guild, which represents the “youth quake” going on in quilting today. This national Mod movement is full of sass, style and energy, and it is bringing more than a new look to the craft: I know I’m not the only person who has been quilting many years who feels rejuvenated, even thrilled, to be making quilts in this moment. Even though most of the quilts I make don’t follow the Mod aesthetic. 

rsz_sherlock

 

     Even though I could only come for two days, the thrills of attending QuiltCon were multiple and intense. The quality of the quilts took a leap forward in sophistication and workmanship from the first QuiltCon two years ago. While there were still many geometric shapes and solid colors, the designs were more complex, the artistry more profound. Alissa Haight Carlton, co-founder of the Modern Quilt Guild, told me that 80% of the quilts in this year’s show were made by people who didn’t enter last time: I think settled mod quilters are more confident about pushing outside the box, and quilters from other traditions are feeling welcome. After all, the Best of Show quilt was made by Kathy York, who self-identifies as an art quilter. I started with the image above because there were a good number of portrait quilts this year, everything from the Mona Lisa (pixilated) and Conan O’Brien to this awesome “Holy Sh#t, Sherlock” portrait of Benedict Cumberbatch. 

rsz_crazy_8

2nd place mod traditionalism, Amy Struckmyer

 

rsz_disruption

     Naturally, I can only show a tiny share of the 359 quilts in the show. But you can understand why this next one sang to me: (note: names of all quilts and quilters not previously listed are at the end of this post.)

rsz_1typewriter

 

The meet-and-greet opportunities were epic. The first photo is Cheryl Arkison, a Canadian quilter whose style I’ve long admired. Below that, I’m with Kristy Daum, maker of the Sherlock quilt, and someone I’d recently interviewed for a magazine article (stay tuned). But every aisle was crammed with people I already know, or people whose blogs I’ve loved, or designers whose fabric I use, or quilt world business sources who keep me plugged in. And I did manage to put in a few hours volunteering in the Quilt Alliance booth: I think everybody who came by to play the “Mod or Not” game had a blast, and both my merry dinners out in Austin were with my scrumptious Alliance posse. (God, I love those women– and Luke.)

IMG_3685

 

rsz_kristy_daum

    It was a lark to keep running into members from my hometown mod guild, the Central Jersey Modern Quilt Guild. The guild banner won third prize in group quilts, and I’m going to brag even though I didn’t contribute a block for it. Here is Jessica Levitt, our guild’s founder and past president.

 Guild quilt

     Audience response to my “Better Quilt Photos NOW!” lecture far exceeded my expectations, considering the exalted company I was keeping. The roster of teachers and talkers was a veritable who’s who of quilt world legends and up-and-comers.  I ran out of handouts because the room was so packed, and all day long, people came up to me to say they got a ton of valuable information from my PowerPoint. I did put in a lot of time, (even before I got a fortune cookie that read: “Only the prepared speaker deserves to be confident.” Not kidding.)

IMG_3666

 

      I won’t soon forget the Saturday night keynote presentation by four women from the Gee’s Bend quilt collective in rural Alabama. I’ve been bowled over by their work ever since I saw it at the Whitney Museum. (If you don’t know from Gee’s Bend, read this blog post by quilter Cheryl Arkison, about her visit with them in Alabama.) Now, I know some mod members expressed disappointment that the Gee’s Bend ladies didn’t talk much about quilt making in the keynote (nor did they do a lot of active teaching at their workshops, from what I’ve been told) , but their gospel singing and fervent affirmations were incredibly stirring. My favorite moment might have been when a Mod quilter asked from the audience if all the quilts they had seen in the QuiltCon show might change or influence their work. Mary Ann Pettway’s frank reply: “No!” (Below is one of her quilts hanging in the Gee’s Bend section of the Austin show.)

 rsz_gees_bend

      Before I devolve into complete gushing gibberish, let me just say that the two days I spent at QuiltCon will go down in my memory museum as a treasure. To share just one encounter, I was walking around gaping at all the quilts in the show a couple of hours after I arrived at the Austin convention center, and a stranger rushed up to me. She said, “You don’t know me, but I love everything you do!” 

      That doesn’t happen to me nearly enough in life (or ever). Thank you, anonymous fan, for putting the cherry on top of the delicious, sustaining treat that was QuiltCon.

 rsz_chawne

Detail from Chawne Kimber’s prize-winner, In Wedowee. I love everything she makes. And this was one example of the hand-quilting trend at QuiltCon that makes me very very happy.  

 Quilt credits: (Still researching the one next to Sherlock, and the red, white and blue crazy 8 below that, so send me a note if you know), Deconstructed Lone Star by Amy Struckmyer, Disruption by Barbara Lockwood, Typewriter No. 5 by Jessica Toye. 

Quilt Festival: The Bliss Anniversary

fireworks

The 40th anniversary of the International Quilt Festival in Houston was a Texas-sized party that incorporated the whole sphere, scope and history of this great craft. I believe this was my fifth or sixth time at Festival, and like many others I spoke with last week, I felt this was definitely the best I’ve been to. I could write a book about Festival (maybe some day I will), but here I just want to share a few observations and some of my favorite photos from this year’s experience.

First off, the fact that Festival was important to Houston was shouted from the rooftops — literally. The city put on a very impressive fireworks show right off the roof of the George R. Brown convention center on Saturday night. This was the second time a Festival anniversary was marked in this way – the last was for the 25th. Those of us attending the Gala on the Green in the park across from the convention center enjoyed good barbecue and a lively band playing danceable oldies — keeping me and my roommate moving and grooving for a full hour after the fireworks. But there was signs and banners advertising Festival ALL over the place, from the airport to the Hyatt hotel.

lobby

Quilts Inc. created a gorgeous display of red and white quilts that were made for the occasion, just inside the doors, which was a perfect gateway for the “Ruby Jubilee.” In homage to the amazing display of 651 red and white quilts at the Infinite Variety show in New York’s Park Avenue Armory, they hung the quilts in a column, attached to a special structure fabricated for the occasion.

ruby

 

It’s overwhelming to view, let alone try to describe 2,000 quilts, many of them either masterpieces or heirlooms, as a group. But I think this year I was especially conscious of how skillfully curated the whole production was because of the almost extreme variety of quilts on view. Just about every branch and specialty of quilting was celebrated with abundant, triumphant examples, and that was part of why the 2014 Festival was so thrilling and fulfilling to me. Even the special exhibit of quilts from the book 500 Traditional Quilts was done in this spirit, mixing  replicas of famous Baltimore Album and other quilts alongside very contemporary interpretations of traditional patterns. It was like quilts across centuries having a lively conversation within the huge venue.

Here is a detail from a traditional quilt that pulled my nose very close to the cloth:

 

rsz_crown

 

And there were, of course, hundreds of stunning contemporary and art quilts, like this one by Hollis Chatelain (you gotta love how the ribbon it won matches it so perfectly):

 

rsz_hollis

Possibly the single most breathtaking quilt at Houston was the Tristan Boutis, a reproduction of a famous quilted bedcover made in Sicily in the 14th century. This is the oldest existing quilted  bedcover on the planet, I’ve heard, and this replica has never been in the U.S. before. It took more than 40 French women about 7,000 to make it, and it was beautifully displayed.

Tristan Quilt

Tristan Quilt

 

For me and most quilters, Festival isn’t just about the quilts themselves, but about the stories behind the quilts, and the relationships between quilters. I was especially drawn to two stories at Quilt Festival this year about groups. I’ll be sharing one of them in the November issue of Quilt Journalist Tells All, but I wanted to talk about the exhibit of 150 quilts depicting Beatles songs.  Donna Marcinkowksi DeSoto of Fairfax, Virginia had no idea when she proposed a Beatles challenge that it would be so big, never mind wind up at Festival and be the subject of a book. What I loved about this exuberant exhibit is that the quality of the quilts varied so widely, but they worked well as a group. Frankly, after seeing so many masterpiece quilts, it was refreshing and inspiring to see some that were more humble. Here is one of my faves of the artistically expert, by Lesly-Claire Greenberg. (These quilts will tour for a year: go here for details.)

 

I Saw Her Standing There

I Saw Her Standing There

One of the other joys of Festival is checking out the marketplace, buying fabric and notions you will NEVER find in your local shop — like the Japanese fabrics I bought from some lovely ladies who live in Hawaii and don’t have either a bricks-and-mortar store or a web store. This is also a great place to preview the latest hardware, including the major models of sewing machines. Clearly, the long arm business in particular continues to grow, and it was interesting to see Bernina’s brand new, first ever long arm going toe-to-toe at Festival with Handi Quilter’s biggest ever machine, the Infinity, with a 26-inch throat.

New Bernina long arm

New Bernina long arm

 

 

 

Handi Quilter Infinity

Handi Quilter Infinity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, Quilt Festival is one long  reunion, where the sisterhood of quilters celebrates old bonds and forges new ones. I had a great time getting to know my FB friend Laurie Russman, a Connecticut quilter, better. We shared a room at Festival and we both had a chance to volunteer our time in the booth of the nonprofit Quilt Alliance.

Me & Laurie Russman celebrate the Alliance contest quilts (on sale @eBay starting Nov. 10)

Me & Laurie Russman celebrate the Alliance contest quilts (on sale @eBay starting Nov. 10)

I also got to catch up with old friends and acquaintances, like Jenny Doan of the Missouri Star Quilt Company. She and her kids have turned that company into the biggest seller of precuts in the country and built a business so successful it’s been covered by both the NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. But I met her and her daughter Sarah at Quilt Market in 2008, just before they opened their doors.

Me & Jenny Doan, from Missouri Star Quilt Co.

Me & Jenny Doan, from Missouri Star Quilt Co.

Here’s to quilts and quilters, and here’s to Quilts Inc. for building our customized Paradise. May you have many, many, many more anniversaries!

 

622x350

 

Understanding the Power of Ritual, and Applying it to My Life

(note: this is adapted from a personal reflection I delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton for May Day, 2014. I write about this name-change ritual in The Book of New Family Traditions.)

stock-photo-word-cloud-ritual-152103434

Let me confess something: I am obsessed with ritual.

When I was pregnant with my son Max I decided to write a book about family traditions and I spent 3 years immersing myself in the topic of ritual. I read more than 60 books and spoke with hundreds of parents, as well as psychologists, anthropologists, and religious educators in preparation for The Heart of a Family.

I became obsessed with questions like what makes a ritual really powerful? Why are some rituals just rote mumbling, while others affect people deeply, and change them permanently? How does a person or a group create the type of ritual that strikes something deep in your core and makes you feel so alive that you are literally vibrating?

You know what it’s like when you are in the midst of an intense experience that fills your every cell and sense? During those times, the nattering little id voices in your brain just shut up and disappear, leaving a refreshing clarity.

I read about a tribe in Tanzania that heals feuds by slaughtering a goat and having the two people quarreling eat its liver. And about the womanhood ritual for 13-year-old girls in the Mescalero Apache tribe in New Mexico, which lasts for 4 days. They dust the girls’ faces with pollen, a symbol of fertility. There is a lot of eating and gifts, special costumes, and running. At the end, the girls dance literally for an entire night. They do this still.

Under the spell of this research, I kept asking myself how to celebrate things more powerfully in my own life. I got into the habit of asking myself which of the 4 elements—earth, air, fire or water – best fit each occasion. Sometimes, this works so beautifully it takes my breath away.

The best example was when I legally changed my name to my husband’s name in 1995, after the birth of our son. I changed my entire name from Margaret Anna Cox to Meg Cox Leone, and I didn’t want to have that just happen on a piece of expensive legal paper. When I did the “which element” exercise, of course I chose water – baptism. Right?

But how and where shall I submerge? My husband suggested I stand in a pail on the back deck, and be doused. But I needed more drama than that. I asked my friend Carol if I could dive into her swimming pool, fully clothed, in front of family and friends. Incredibly, she said yes!

Dear friend Carol Mason, who hosted the ritual in her backyard.

Dear friend Carol Mason, who hosted the ritual in her backyard.

To start off the ceremony part, I said a few words about why I was doing this and asked them to be my witnesses and support my new identity. Then I dove off the diving board, and swam toward my husband, who stood by the shallow end, holding two glasses of champagne.

I made a few remarks before diving into the pool!

I made a few remarks before diving into the pool!

My friends ate and drank and made me laugh. It was modest as rites-of-passage ordeals go, but it was a bodily push through a physical medium with enough celebratory bells and whistles to make me feel new, changed. I carry with me the memory of everyone cheering as I plunged into the silence of the water, then was suddenly swept up again into the air and party clamor.

Cutting the cake after my dive & kissing my son.

Cutting the cake after my dive & kissing my son.

A proper ceremony needs witnesses!

A proper ceremony needs witnesses!

 

Every once in a while, I meet someone who really knows how to scratch this itch, and is not so timid as myself. About a decade ago, I met a 50-something woman from Georgia, a friend of a friend, a poet named Jan. She talked of wanting to experience life in a primal way, and about how she owned this remote property, where she would go with women friends to dance naked around a fire. She wanted to feel the heat of the fire and the earth under her bare feet. I was in awe. Less than a year later, I heard that she was dead, cancer.

I have to find my own meaning of primal, and it may not be Jan’s. But one thing I have learned is that in order to be changed by a ritual, I must strip away my defenses and present my naked vulnerability. I feel comfortable practicing that in this room on Sundays, so you may look over one day and see tears streaming down my face. And when an opportunity comes along to dance around a May pole, I take it.

A T-shirt to proclaim the change.

A T-shirt to proclaim the change.

What do you need to celebrate next?

Quilters Take Manhattan, 2014

We did it again!!!

Logo for QTM

The nonprofit Quilt Alliance had a spectacular success at our 4th annual Quilters Take Manhattan benefit. As president of the Alliance, I spend a great deal of time helping to organize all the parts of this event, and it’s great when the hundreds of people who come to learn and party get so excited.

Amy Butler

The main program was on Saturday, September 20 at FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology, with keynote speaker Amy Butler. A hugely talented and successful fabric designer, Amy surprised many by the focus of her remarks: instead of giving the typical overview of her career with a heavy promotion of her fabrics and patterns, she launched into a very personal account of recent struggles in her business, and how she overcame them. It was a courageous presentation, and most people in the room were absolutely rapt. She followed up by answering questions both to the audience at large, and when individuals came up to her at a table piled high with her latest vivid creations.

 

Mark Dunn checks out the display of his quilts just before QTM.

Mark Dunn checks out the display of his quilts just before QTM.

Amy was followed by Mark Dunn, founder and owner of the magical Moda, a beloved fabric company based in Dallas that has led the industry in precut fabrics and its general high standards for design and quality. He brought a selection of quilts from his personal collection that ran the gamut from traditional pieces made in the 19th and early 20th century to very contemporary art quilts. It was touching that his two sons, who are coming up in the family business, worked as his “quilt wranglers,” holding and carrying these masterpieces so everyone could get a good look.

There were also 5 short videos shot for the Alliance’s oral history project Go Tell It At the Quilt Show. The group who spoke included three quilters, author/collector Roderick Kiracofe  and Stacy Hollander, a curator for the American Folk Art Museum.

Melanie Testa told the story of this quilt for her Go Tell It.

Melanie Testa told the story of this quilt for her Go Tell It.

Emcee Mark Lipinski kept everybody jumping, and laughing. I can’t print everything he said in his introduction of Amy Butler, but she was laughing hardest of all.

rsz_lipinski

Every year, we try to add new dimensions to the experience at FIT, while also presenting new add-on events on Friday and Sunday.

This year, the extras at FIT included vendors, such as City Quilter, which even brought a Handi Quilter machine for people to play with, as well as authors, who sold and signed books, and a labeling demonstration, conducted by Alliance board member Leslie Tucker Jenison.

Leslie demo

There were also lots of quilts to see, including contest quilts from Cherrywood’s “Wicked” challenge, and some of the quilts from the Alliance’s 2014 contest, Inspired By.

Karla Overland vended and brought Wicked contest quilts.

Karla Overland vended and brought Wicked contest quilts.

 

With a longer day that began at 10 am (although tickets were the same price), there was a lunch break this year.

rsz_lunch_on_the_floor

The afternoon concluded with Quilt Match Manhattan, a live quilt-design competition between 3 quilters, who were given fabric and tools, but could bring a yard of fabric from home. One of the 3 invited contestants couldn’t come at the last minute, so Earamicha Brown was pulled up as an audience volunteer to compete with John Kubinec and Allie Aller. Crazy quilter Allie Aller was the winner, according to audience applause, and she won this stunning CHAMP belt made by Alliance board member Frances Holiday Alford.

rsz_4contestants

This year’s extra events included a theater outing on Friday night, plus workshops at City Quilter and a workshop with Victoria Findlay Wolfe that she taught at her loft home.

We added more tours of the garment district this year, and all of them quickly sold out. Those small groups got a chance to visit Manhattan-based fabric companies with a well-known quilter (Paula Nadelstern, Mark Lipiniski or RaNae Merrill) and learn how fabric collections are put together. For an account of that, here is a blog for fabric company Benartex, about Paula Nadelstern’s tour for Quilters Take Manhattan.

Another outing that sold out fast was a tour of the Ratti textile center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Friday afternoon. This was truly an amazing opportunity to see some of the museum’s masterpieces, in the company of curator Amelia Peck, who put together last year’s epic Interwoven Globe show at the Met. You can read more about what we learned of the Met’s textile collections in the September issue of my e-newsletter, Quilt Journalist Tells All.

rsz_met

Closeup of a signature quilt with 360 prominent names.

Closeup of a signature quilt with 360 prominent names.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every year, QTM’s Saturday fun ends with Quilters Take Manhattan After Dark, a party in the loft home of Victoria Findlay Wolfe. This is an intimate space, and a great opportunity to network with some of the quilt world’s leading lights. One of the comments we consistently get from people who attend Quilters Take Manhattan is that they can’t believe how many members of “quilt royalty” they run into at both the daytime FIT event and the party.

If you want to read some of the early reactions to QTM 2014 by bloggers, you can go check out this blog. and this one. And this blogger, a first-timer at Quilters Take Manhattan, rates every aspect of the day at FIT from “meh” to “awesome.”

Here I am with Amy Milne, executive director of the Quilt Alliance, celebrating the great day at FIT, and getting ready to open the doors for the After Dark party.

 

rsz_amy_&_me

I hope you will consider coming to Quilters Take Manhattan 2015. We already have a date: September 26, 2015. And a keynote speaker: Ricky Tims. To keep abreast of add-on events and the date that tickets go on sale (we sold out 4 months early this year), you’ll want to go to www.QuiltAlliance.org and sign up for the free newsletter, or look for the Quilt Alliance FaceBook page.  Remember, all proceeds help the Alliance in its mission to document, preserve and share the stories of quilts, and their makers.

Ricky

How to Celebrate ANYTHING!!!!!

Until-further-notice-celebrate-everything

This summer, I made a promise that when my Traditions page on Facebook hit 1,000 fans, I would select someone to win a Celebration in a Box. Inside this box, I said, would be a bunch of tools and resources that would help that person and her/his family celebrate pretty much whatever came up in their lives.

I also promised to blog about the Celebration Box, so that anybody else who is interested might consider keeping some of these supplies on hand, and trying out some of my ideas.

My philosophy of celebrating is that you want to excite as many of the 5 senses as you possibly can. You want decorations: fun, thematic things to look at. And you want delicious fitting food to eat. But you also want sounds — noise, music, clapping, singing, stomping — something for your ears to enjoy as well. Smells might come from candles, or the food. And touching implies that your celebration will be active, not just people sitting around, but people dancing, jumping, joking, laughing, blowing bubbles and playing games. All the items I’ve included fit into these five sense categories, and when you plan a ritual or celebration, you might want to think about them too.

rsz_1celebration_box

 

Decorations: Several items here can be used to decorate for party time, including the balloons and the banner. Another good item to keep on hand is crepe paper streamers!

Making Noise: What kid doesn’t like an opportunity to make noise? One of the great things about special occasions for kids, is that it’s a rare excuse to go big and go loud, forget the “indoor voice” and break the rules about eating too much sugar. Ritual is life with italics and exclamation marks!!!! I put in some dollar store noisemakers, but it’s hard to beat a pan and a wooden spoon.

rsz_6noisemakers

Having fun: there are a million ways to have fun and you probably know some of your kids’ favorite ways to party. Here, I have included bubbles, because blowing bubbles is my go-to 30-second cure for anxiety at any age. Also, there are pinwheels here. You will likely choose a game that fits the theme of your celebration, whether a holiday, birthday, or just a “You Rock!” occasion to cheer your kid on for kicking a goal, or kicking a bad habit. One guaranteed way to have fun is to hand out quick props that instantly transform people in a goofy way, which is why I threw in a dollar-store pack of stick-on mustaches. Mustaches are cool now — below is a photo of a bride and groom wearing them! (from the Offbeat Bride blog, naturally.)

rsz_moustaches

 

 

mustaches--offbeat bride blog

 

Also included in my Celebration Box is a white paper tablecloth and two boxes of crayons, because. I mean, who ever outgrows the joy of doodling all over a paper tablecloth? Not me, that’s for sure. Again, there are various ways to do this, and craft stores sell those rolls of paper you can just pull out and tape to the bottom of your kitchen table. But you should also not neglect this idea with adults. True story: my husband’s ex was having a birthday and made a comment about being sick of adulthood or birthdays or both, and I decided to have a kid party for her. I taped white paper to the fancy dining room table, and put on crayons, and gave every person a silly hat and a goody bag — and we had the BEST time. This is what happened: everyone wound up wearing a plastic dinosaur on their nose…..

dino noses

 

Crescendo moments: at most celebrations, there is a “tada moment” when the reason for the celebration is expressed, the candles are blown out, or the one being celebrated takes a bow or makes a speech. Do it with energy, passion and pizzazz. That’s why I included a box of 60 confetti poppers (well 59, because I needed one badly) in the Celebration Box. The reason I included the star-shaped cookie cutter is so when you need to shine a spotlight on your kid, for a big birthday or an everyday accomplishment, you have a quick way to react: just cut out a brownie and stick a candle in the center (or make tomorrow’s PB&J sandwich on star-shaped bread).

images

 

Toast Like a Pro: While we’re on the topic of ta-da moments, I want to share some good advice about making effective toasts at any age. This is a good social skill to pass on, right? And little kids LOVE to clink glasses together and connect — literally and emotionally — even when they are still drinking out of sippie cups. So here is a blog post from the Wall Street Journal called “How to Give Really Good Toasts.” It’s funny because the guy is a writer for the Simpsons tv show, but I think the advice is spot-on. (Amy Nelson, the mom who won the Celebration Box, you don’t need to click on the link. I put a printout of the blog post in the box.)

Celebrate-the-new-year-with-kids-NoBiggie.net_1

 

There you have it!!! I hope this post will give you some food for thought about what celebration staples you might keep on hand, so whenever you need to celebrate something on short notice, you will be up to the task.

One more piece of advice: I’m a sucker for the tradition of “Special” plates. Some families have a special plate for the birthday boy or girl, which is fun. Others have a more generic “You are Special” plate, or one that might say “Celebrate!” on it. Maybe I love this tradition so much because of the plate my mother gave me several decades ago, after I graduated from college and headed off into the world. This plate is decorated with a smiling face, so that no matter how many meals I ended up eating at home alone as I began my career, there would always be a face smiling back at me! This is one celebration staple I’ll never be without.

rsz_happy_plate

Now, I’d love to hear from you. What are YOUR celebration staples? I’m going to put together another Celebration Box when my Facebook page hits 2,000. What should I put in next time?

Note: You can get tons more ideas about how to celebrate everything from families all over the country interviewed for my latest book. Find it on Amazon.com, at your local independent bookstore, or the library. Library Journal said this book “belongs in every child’s home.”

home_book_newtrad

Postscript: When winner Amy Nelson opened the Celebration Box with her kids, they got right into the spirit, immediately trying out the stick-on mustaches! How will you celebrate life at your house?

10655246_10204115046704092_36942472808587842_o

 

Ditch the Guilt, Pack the Joy: Heading for the Shore

     P1040117

      As someone who has researched and written about family traditions for nearly 20 years, I sometimes feel guilty that some of my own family’s rituals aren’t as gangbusters creative and spectacular as those of the people I interview. I wrote in one of my books about an extended family in Baltimore that goes on so many expeditions and holiday outings, they refurbished their own bus! Other families I know travel to one exotic vacation locale after another, boasting of arduous climbs and clever original games played along the way.

      I do love visiting countries I’ve never been to, and revisiting favorite cities like London, Paris and Rome. And I still hope to visit all the great American National Parks still on my bucket list. But I can finally now confess that my family’s very simple, humble summer visit to the Jersey Shore is a real highlight of every year. 

 images

      This year, I had an aha moment about how the simple things we do together are just as important and satisfying as splashier, more distant excursions. We don’t own a house at the beach, but we rent one of a handful of houses again and again, just a hundred yards from the beach on Long Beach Island on the quieter end of the island. The more we go, the more it means to us, and we cheer as we drive over the familiar bridge to the long, skinny island we love. 

       Gone are the days when visiting the Hamptons or the Vineyard tempted us: we got sick of the crowds and the spectacle, the sense that everybody was preening and showing off. There’s something so relaxing in visiting a seasonal place that seems stuck in the past: there are neither glitzy bars and restaurants, nor any garish fast food eateries.  There isn’t even a movie theater on the island any more, though you can trek into Beach Haven for a cool lecture on local ghost stories. 

       There’s the beach and the ocean, different and thrilling every day.

P1030220

       Posing my son’s childhood toy, a stuffed animal alligator named Gus, for silly photos — he loves the beach (and drinking beer.)

P1040049

        And the search for that day’s fresh food, whether it’s just-caught fish or perfect pasta from the local Italian market.

P1040077_2

        And our books and games and crafts.

 rsz_shells

        Just the sheer joy of hanging out. At liberty to look and breathe and be.

 

rsz_p1000999

             

 

 rsz_sand_creature

 

I love my ritual of going to the local arts foundation and taking a Pilates or yoga class on the roof before breakfast. I love my first cup of coffee while I pick up the New York Times, and see all the other relaxed families, riding bikes or walking or jogging on the main drag. 

rsz_1pilates

      Just picking out my special pile of books before we leave is a joy. I pack a mix of old classics I haven’t yet read with brand new books, mostly fiction, and we always go at least once a week to the small but excellent local bookstore because we want her to be in business forever. (Of course I always pack hand-sewing or quilting projects.)

       When my son was younger, our summer rituals were different: for some years, we went to the Smuggler’s Notch family resort in Stowe, Vermont. We would scramble up and down the hills to our little apartment unit, explore the creeks and woods, and sign up for fun outings like a hike with llamas that included an ice cream break. Every year, we ate at the same little diner, Dunn’s, which had gargantuan farm-style breakfasts. At the end of the week, the same goofy but skilled magician would entertain the families in a green field. We called the pools with all the extra slides and waterfalls the “Special Effects Pools,” and our son loved them. 

      Now that my son is in college and I look back at all our summers, I think these relatively simple but repeated vacations are among the most memorable and beloved rituals that I helped shape for my small tribe. 

      Wherever you go with your family this summer, don’t beat yourself up that it isn’t grander or farther away. Allow yourself to relish that lovely slow time as you unplug and reconnect. It is more than enough: it’s a feast of current joy and treasured memory.

 P1050011      

 

  

Prayer Flag Blog Hop: Fresh Ideas for an Age-Old Tradition

 
8fa51
 
 Vivika Hansen DeNegre, editor of Quilting Arts magazine, said she asked me to participate in this week’s Prayer Flag Blog Hop because of my unusual combination of skills: as both an expert in quilting and traditions, she thought I might have something fresh to add to the ongoing conversation.
 
Crafters, sewers and quilters looking for small but worthwhile projects have been gravitating to making banners inspired by the tradition of prayer flags. These flags have a rich history and tradition and are made to express the maker’s prayerful pleas for a better, more peaceful world. Even creating small flags on strings using contemporary embellishments can tap into some of those feelings of thankfulness and awe. Tibetan prayer flags, simply made and decorated with sacred colors and symbols, are meant to better all living things as the breeze lifts them. But a string of indoor flags can also express love and devotion.
 
 
10db721b61befab6a26868f761780d11
 
  When my packet came in the mail from Quilting Arts with the Moda Home Made banner set, the timing was perfect. I was about to fly to St. Louis to help my sister after back surgery, and it seemed perfect to make my flags express a prayer for her healing. I would be staying at her home for a week without access to my sewing machine, stash or other sewing supplies, and here was the perfect portable and meaningful craft project. 
 
At first, I planned to use bright, spring colors to make it cheerful. But once I got the idea of using the bold Red Cross symbol, I decided it would work best in just red and white. And that made packing easy. I grabbed some bright red prints, some white fabric, and a few tokens to stitch on, like a guardian angel charm. Along with a pincushion, thread and scissors. There was no time to explore local quilt shops while I was in the area to add more, but I did find a packet of red buttons at WalMart, while buying groceries.  (And, I did have to buy an IRON at WalMart, because my sister didn’t own this basic quilting tool.)
 
rsz_flags_in_progress
 I thoroughly enjoyed working on this project, my first attempt at making prayer flags. This kit was wonderful because the size of the individual pennants gave me enough room to play with. It was the buttons on the banner that inspired me to add more buttons still as a design theme. And the buttons allow one to play around with the order of the individual flags as well. Also, there are 8 pennants in the set, but since they are only attached by buttons, you can choose how many you want: my design concept took seven.
 
 rsz_tracy_wflags
 
 
 My sister — shown here with her charming daughter Jenn– was thrilled by the results, and happy to have these healing wishes shine upon her daily, even after I left to come home to Princeton. 
 
rsz_flags_in_tracy_house
 
  Now I’m eager to play with some more styles and sizes of prayer flags, and will dig into all the inspiration found in Interweave’s ebook on Prayer Flags: the readers of Quilting Arts magazine provided more than 550 miniature flags and construction ideas for this special publication. Go here to order just the eBook from Interweave or the eBook and Moda banner kit. 
 
I can envision making strings of flags for many occasions, including major milestones and accomplishments, and to send love and prayers to my nearest and dearest, whether I can bring them personally or not. And, I am seriously considering finding some fabric I could print on and leave outside, in my garden. I want to research the Tibetan and other traditions for using these objects respectfully. I feel like I’ve discovered a whole new medium, both in my crafting work, and as a maker of tradition. 
 
By the way, I will be giving away a banner kit in the April issue of Quilt Journalist Tells All.
 
Thanks, Vivika!!
 
 prayerflags
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Want more inspiration? Visit The Prayer Flag Project blog, to learn more about this movement, upload your own prayer flags, or just be inspired and uplifted by the flags of others.
Here’s the rest of the blog hop, do visit each one. These women are far more accomplished quilt artists than I, and I can’t wait to see their takes on this project.
April 11:    Quiltingdaily.com 
April 14:     Jane LaFazio  
April 15:   Meg Cox  (YOU ARE HERE!)
April 16:    Deborah O’Hare  
April 17:   Jamie Fingal 
April 17:   Susan Brubaker Knapp 
April 18:     Carrie Bloomston

 Go here to subscribe to my monthly newsletter Quilt Journalist Tells All!

Reading Rituals: “Good Books by Dead People”

 Do you belong to a reading group? 

For me, a book group combines two of the things I love most in this world: books and traditions. One of the most satisfying things I ever did was belonging to the same book group for 20 years.

I want to share some of the best books we read, but I also want to share some of the rituals that made the experience richer.

The group began shortly after I moved to New York City. My friend and agent Geri Thoma and I decided to start a group and Geri declared: “I read bad books by living people for work, so we are only going to read good books by dead people!” Thus we embarked on a mission to read only “classics” and we stuck with fiction, mostly novels.  I think having some sort of theme or area of concentration is a great idea for reading groups, and helps when trying to assemble a like-minded group of readers. Sticking to an organizing principle means that the more books you read, the more you can explore and comment on them in relation to one another, giving you a deeper understanding.

First Meeting: at my tiny East Village apartment.

First Meeting: at my tiny East Village apartment.

Book groups vary in their rules and composition. Ours was about half men, half women. We switched between different members’ apartments, and we always had dinner first.

There was a strict rule that the book could not be discussed while eating, and that once we started the discussion, no chitchat was allowed. But it was wonderful having a very social meal, where we could get caught up on everyone’s private life before plunging into a serious discussion.

Bill Borders' Famous Meatloaf

Bill Borders’ Famous Meatloaf

 The members were extremely well-read and discussions ranged from lively to heated. It was such a joy to read novels I had read as an English major (or should have), but with plenty of time to digest them, and no tests or grades. We devoured multiple tomes by some of my favorite authors including Dickens, Wharton, Conrad,  and Austen.

At the same time, I made new discoveries, reading major authors like Anthony Trollope, Emile Zola and Ralph Ellison for the first time. I don’t think I ever would have tackled the Mt. Olympus of James Joyce’s Ulysses without the support of this group, but it was so worth reading and discussing.  Who knew that Emile Zola wrote a page-turning novel about shopping (The Ladies’ Paradise)?  How had I ever missed Middlemarch? And where had British author George Gissing been hiding all my life?

The closer the group got over the years, the more we started creating traditions. One of the best was turning the December meeting into an annual Christmas party. This included voting for the best and worst book of that year, as well as the best discussion. Also, we each brought a gift-wrapped book and had a gift grab bag.

We met 10 times a year, taking off August and one other month. It was good to schedule a mega-tome like War and Peace for when we had two months to read. Most summers, we would spend a weekend at the summer lake house of one of the members in an exercise we called Book Group Summer Camp, and this was heavenly.

Book Group Summer Camp

Book Group Summer Camp

If you are in a book group you love, consider ways to celebrate and deepen your connections. When our group turned 10 years old, we had a wonderful party with a book-shaped cake, and I had special bookmarks made for party favors.

10 year party

We even had signature gifts for special occasions: any member of the book group who got married, was given a set of bookends featuring the famous lions that guard the New York Public Library. And, when a book grouper had a baby, each member gave the parents a wrapped copy of his or her favorite children’s book.

Is this one Patience or Fortitude?

Is this one Patience or Fortitude?

It was difficult to commute to a NYC book group from Princeton, so I stopped going a few years back, but I have indelible memories of this wonderful group of people and the 200 books we read together. What brought it all back to me was a request for a charity auction item. I decided to put together 10 Amazing Classics Most People Haven’t Read, and share some of the group’s greatest “finds,” including The Odd Women by George Gissing and Germinal by Emile Zola. Would you like to see my full list of 10, with my reasons for the picks? Just shoot me an email at meg@megcox.com and I’ll send it to you.

My Basket of 10 Hidden Classics

My Basket of 10 Hidden Classics

Meanwhile, what about you? What do you like best about your book group?

Please share some of you favorite reading group books – and traditions.

And if you have never tried a classics book group — Do It!!!!

10 years books

 

What Am I Doing In a Documentary About Rap Music?

 
     Journalism is only partly about writing. For me, research and interviewing have been equally satisfying (and usually less stressful).
     In the 17 years I worked as a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal, my mind was opened wide by the staggering range of people I met — and whose lives I had a ticket to explore. I interviewed farmers and movie stars, CEOs and Rockettes. I hung out with Rupert Murdoch, the inventor of kitty litter and Jeff Koons. 
 
Always did have a "busy" desk with piles around me!

Always did have a “busy” desk with piles around me!

 
 
     But perhaps the most fascinating person I got to know during those years was Russell Simmons. Before the mansions, philanthropy, yoga-mastery and swimsuit models, Russell Simmons was a driven young man with an idea that seemed wildly implausible at the time: to develop rap into the soundtrack of the nation, and to make a fortune for himself in the process. 
 
     Our paths first crossed in 1984. Russell was in his 20s, promoting a handful of unknown rap performers at clubs and working out of a tiny midtown office with graffiti -covered walls. A colleague trying to get publicity for Russell’s tiny DIY label, Def Jam, called me up and said this hip hop thing wasn’t a fad, and I should interview Russell because he was the “mogul of rap.”  That seemed like a laughable oxymoron, but as a hook, it got me. 
 
Russell Simmons & LL Cool J

Russell Simmons & LL Cool J

 
     To start with, Russell said I needed to go with him to “the birthplace of rap,” a dingy club in the South Bronx called Disco Fever, and I needed to go at 2 am, because that’s when it gets interesting. He wanted to bring along his young protege, a guy too young to drink at the bar, but his first single had just come out: his name was LL Cool J. To report that first story, I traipsed around with Russell as he took rap records with a single song  from one hot downtown club to the next, trying to persuade the DJs to play the music. I travelled to Baltimore for a touring show called the Fresh Festival, which included some of the hot acts of the day like Run-D.M.C. and the Fat Boys. 
 
disco fever
 
   
Run-D.M.C. (Run, aka Joseph Simmons, is Russell's little brother)

Run-D.M.C. (Run, aka Joseph Simmons, is Russell’s little brother)

 
       Over the years I covered rap (when my beat was the business of the arts, and later, the music business), I wrote about the changing scene. I interviewed up-and-coming stars like Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Peppa, and the guys who started the Source magazine in their Harvard dorm room, but I kept in touch with Russell. What always impressed me most about him was his work ethic. He was a total Type-A workaholic and obsessed with his projects, and always eloquent in his defense of the music. I recall one lunch at a diner in the East Village early on when a middle-aged black man sitting at the next table, overhearing us speak about the state of rap music, started attacking it as vile both musically and culturally. As always, Russell responded with a detailed, passionate defense. 
 
     
You can tell how little the WSJ editors thought of rap by the headline, right?

You can tell how little the WSJ editors thought of rap by the headline, right?

 
 
        I’ll be honest and admit that rap is probably still my least favorite genre of music. But there is absolutely no denying that Russell Simmons and all the other artists and producers of this music have lived out his dream, and I don’t just mean his net worth exceeding $300 million. Rap is the soundtrack of 21st century America in many respects, as likely as rock to be in the next ad you see. 
 
      I’ve not seen any of this 4-part documentary, The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip Hop, but I can say the producers were extremely professional, well-organized and thorough. I kept telling them no, I didn’t want to be interviewed for a rap documentary, but they kept asking until I said yes, explaining that Russell Simmons told them it took being quoted in my front page story for him to get the mainstream credibility he needed to finally sign a big record deal. I’ll be very interested to see which of my comments during the hour they filmed me made it into the documentary, but yes, Russell Simmons did call me “The Ivory Snow Queen.” He said I was the whitest person he ever met. 
 
       So that’s how I wound up becoming a talking head in the The Tanning of America (they tell me I appear in parts 1 and 2.). It will debut Monday, Feb. 24 on VH1, at 11 pm, running four consecutive nights, and afterward, will be available for streaming online, including at iTunes. You can watch the trailer here, and see if it isn’t worth checking out.
 
         rap poster

You Gotta Have Heart!

   monday-hearts1

     Page Hodel is a DJ living in San Francisco. She fell madly, wildly in love with her neighbor Madalene Rodriguez in 2005, and every Monday morning, Madalene would wake up to find a Page-made heart on her front porch. The hearts were constructed out of whatever objects caught Page’s fancy: flowers or twigs or corks or stones or tiny toys. 

     Sadly, Madalene was diagnosed with a virulent, fast-moving cancer, and about one year after the two women met, she died. But Page has continued to make these hearts every Monday for her forever sweetheart, sharing them with the world through photographs. So far, she has made over 400 of these hearts, using as her materials anything from human beings to the innards of a de-constructed piano. I’ve been privileged to be on her email list for years, and find one of these magnificent hearts in my inbox every Monday morning. But anyone can enjoy these amazing creations on Page’s website. See them all displayed, and if you wish, sign up to receive these weekly treasures in your e-mail inbox. I also heartily recommend Page’s book, as well as her licensed notecards and posters. The image above, showing shirts fashioned into a giant heart, is from a poster. 

        Unknown-1

    For Valentine’s Day, I urge you to look at Page’s hearts, and be inspired to make your own. That’s what I decided to do this year, make hearts out of any objects or substances, whether found in nature or man-made, that crossed my path or tickled my imagination. I’ve been shaping these all week, and thinking about a particular person I love with each one. I’ll be sending them out in e-mails with sentimental or romantic notes on Friday. Make some hearts, and share them with those you love.

 rsz_purple_heart

 

 

rsz_red_hots_heart

   

 

rsz_1lego_heart

 

rsz_cheerios_heart

 Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you!!!!!

And don’t forget, there are hundreds of great traditions and celebrations in my book, The Book of New Family Traditions. 

home_book_newtrad

Reviewing the Year as it Ends: A Questionnaire

Every year, we sit down as a family on New Year’s Day and we each write 3 resolutions, which we save on the pantry door.

But a bigger deal is the list of questions we ask each year.  Part of the fun is re-reading what we wrote in previous years. P1040635

However you choose to celebrate, I wish you all a very happy New Year!! And hope I see you back here in 2014. 

Here are the questions for 2013:

QUESTIONS ABOUT 2013

BEST THING THAT HAPPENED TO YOU?

 WORST THING THAT HAPPENED TO YOU?

BEST THING YOU ACCOMPLISHED?

 DESCRIBE THE YEAR IN ONE WORD.

BEST MOVIE YOU SAW IN 2013? WORST?

 BEST BOOK YOU READ IN 2013?

 BEST TV PROGRAM OF 2013?

 WHAT EVENTS OF ’13 WILL MAKE HISTORY?

 WHAT YOU WILL REMEMBER MOST ABOUT ’13?

 3 THINGS YOU HOPE FOR MOST IN 2014?

 

 

How to Turn Cash Gifts Into a Tradition with Meaning

1386285536000-cash-gift       Ever since their teen years, my nieces and nephews have had just one item on their Christmas wish list: CASH.

      Chances are, you’ve got some young folk with the same requests. Maybe, like me, you understand that they’ve got their own tastes and wants, but you find giving money kind of boring. They spend it, it’s gone, with nothing left over to indicate there was a relationship between the two people in this transaction. 

       Maybe I got to thinking about creating new rituals for money gifts because of my grandfather, Michael Hohenstine, a craftsman and jeweler in Columbus, Ohio. He didn’t like to just give plain bills either. So he would get new bills from the bank, and using glue on one end, turn a stack of money into a pad. His 4 daughters got pads of twenty dollar bills every Christmas, while each of the grandkids got 20 singles glued in a pad. So simple, I know, but it made spending the money an adventure, because of the reactions of sales clerks when you started peeling off your bills!

MrP_tb_moneypad

 

      But I wanted more than a memorable sight gag. I’m a word person, dontcha know, and I wanted to share wisdom and wishes with the cash I gave.  So I started doing what I call “Cash-PLUS.” I go to the bank and get new bills, like my granddad, but I take each bill and wrap it into a small scroll along with a thin piece of paper. On that paper, I write a series of inspiring quotes, or, depending on the occasion, my wishes, hopes and dreams for that child. When they reached milestone birthdays, like 21, I would use 21 bills (either fives or tens). 

      For Christmas, why not wrap your scrolls in holiday paper? You might consider writing on the papers events and accomplishments you hope for the kid in the coming year, or list the qualities of their character and personality you appreciate the most. 

 rsz_cash_quotes

     

 

rsz_cash_how_to

 

       What I try to do is find a small attractive box to hold the scrolls. This gives you something to wrap, and it gives the recipient a place to save the scrolls as a keepsake. 

 rsz_cash_box_outside

     rsz_1cash_box 

            Do you have other ways to make money gifts special? I did find some on a blog called Party Animal, including things like folding bills into origami shapes.  But I would love to hear some fresh ideas from you!

            Here is another idea from my friend Nancy Breland. When she turned 25 and was a “starving” graduate student, her father sent her a prescription bottle full of cash. On the label, he was listed as the prescribing physician, and he wrote: “RX: Take as needed.” Nancy says you can get new prescription bottles at your local drugstore and do this yourself for a loved one’s gift. I could also see this being done for a Christmas gift. 

           images-golocalprov-com--health_Pill+Bottle+and+Dollars-320x320