Breaking Up With

I remember exactly when I decided to take online dating seriously. My husband Dick had been dead for three years and I was turning 65. During a brief bathroom ceremony on my birthday, I removed my wedding ring and placed a temporary tattoo over my heart that read Choose Love Now.

Five years later, when I turned 70 last month, I decided to break up with forever, the online dating site I had stuck with the longest. I didn’t let my bad first marriage last 5 years and I wasn’t going to continue any longer doing something on purpose that made me this consistently miserable.

Let’s be clear. I tried a LOT of dating sites: Stitch, Our Time, OK Cupid, Match, eHarmony, EliteSingles, Bumble and an obscure one specifically for booklovers. I liked hundreds of men, spoke with 89 of them on the phone and went on dates with several dozen. In all that time, there were only two whose mind, body and soul I wanted to explore in depth. And after months of dating, each of them bowed out. Both fizzled relationships happened last year, which partly explains why I’m throwing in the towel now. My decision is also related to this age milestone: unlike many people on dating sites, I never lied about my age and the closer I got to 70, the closer the men pursuing me got to 90.

Other than enough juicy anecdotes for a stand-up comedy set, what did I actually obtain in five years of diligent vulnerability and dashed hopes?

For a brief while, when my niece was exactly half my age (I was 66), we talked about writing a book together about two different generations’ experience with online dating. So I was trying to collect some of the more bizarre and amusing experiences that reflected my demographic. Like the guy who wrote, “My wife of 35 years recently died and I know you are the next love of my life because you are nothing like her.” Or the man who was sure we’d be a great couple although “Sadly, I’m between teeth. And I don’t drive at night.”  One guy who pursued me said his side gig was fighting the reptilian overlords who run our planet and he had 10 invisible wings, but I don’t suppose this obsession was age-related. Also, “wow, my furniture would look great in here” isn’t a welcome second-date response at any age.

Meanwhile, my niece is engaged to a fabulous guy she’s known since high school. The book project was dropped.

Was I too picky? I was only interested in men who were passionate about life, accomplished in some way, deeply engaged with friends and family, witty, honest and emotionally available. And monogamous. Bonus points if they were interested in meditation or travel.

I’m not about to dump on all men, or all men in my age group who frequent online dating sites. Once I figured out how to spot fake profiles, many of the men with whom I engaged seemed self-aware and genuinely interested in a juicy, committed relationship. They were able to communicate their wishes and needs in appropriate ways, except for that guy who broke up with me in a text after 4 months of dating. (You are a coward with mommy issues, Dude.) Almost all of these aging men were battle-scarred and wary: they were out the other side of bad marriages or they had lost someone they loved dearly, often after a lengthy, exhausting period of caregiving. Neither their bodies nor their careers were at their peak. (And neither are mine.) Many were lovely, caring people and some really tried. We just didn’t fit.

But I really did think it would be different or I wouldn’t have kept trying. I had hoped for more sex, more playfulness, more depth, more simple tenderness. Constantly curating and performing my personality and life to tempt a stranger’s notice became a grind.

I don’t know my Myers-Briggs personality type, but I’m someone who is known for shining. I expect myself to exceed expectations. Even though I’ve been a freelance writer since 1994, the constant rejection flattened me. It was easier in the first few years to stay cheerful. But in recent months, I would spiral down into a loop of longing and self-loathing some nights, scrolling desperately past sad bathroom selfies and grinning men with bodies of fish pressed to their chests, feeling increasingly hopeless. I’m sorry. I don’t do hopeless. I’m not pulling the lever on this machine ever again. I’m free.

For sure, I don’t regard the 5 years spent as a total waste. I learned a lot, including that I’d rather dwell alone than shackled to someone who doesn’t make life sweeter. It’s not like I have no good memories: If I hadn’t dated so many outdoorsmen, I would probably never have bought myself good hiking boots (for some reason, knowing the names of birds and trees is a turn-on for me). I’m grateful for the guy with the chain saw who spent half a day cutting up dead tree branches in my son’s backyard. I give thanks for the man who introduced me to the music of Bela Fleck. The one whose second-date ploy was to wrap up two of his favorite books in brown paper as gifts won my heart immediately (he wanted all of me, until an old flame returned.) I’ll cherish some of the unexpected moments, like the arborist who brought a fresh apple to a coffee date he had just plucked off a tree, and cut it up with his pocket knife for our DIY snack. I’ll never forget the French horn player with skinny hips for whom I was Just.Too.Much, for the way he took my face in his hands before that first and only kiss. And out of the 89 I conversed with, one man became a friend and I’m grateful for him.

 In the end, I think online dating platforms are dehumanizing by nature. It’s more a shopping experience than a safe gathering space.  Dating sites are just another display of online merchandise we can acquire, and sad to say, a good number of senior citizens present as past their sell-by dates. I am guilty myself of the swipe-fast-there’s-plenty-more mentality, thinking “This guy isn’t answering back the way I would like or as fast as I want. But there are hundreds more guys back on the site. Let’s try them.” (I’m stunned that Amazon hasn’t gotten into the dating business by now: “Consummation delivered overnight with Prime.”)

I started online dating with a small personal ritual and it was another ritual that helped me sever this unhappy obsession. I had made a plan to wake up the day I turned 70 at a Kundalini yoga immersion in Rishikesh, India. Early in the 10-day retreat, we participated in a Vedic fire ceremony, a purification ritual with a priest. He chanted a mantra 27 times and each time he did, we were to toss an offering of dry herbs and roots into the fire, each time naming to ourselves a thing or habit we wanted to expel from our lives. So, 27 times, I vowed to jettison online dating from my life. As soon as I returned home, I cut ties to

Now, I’m not averse to romance and maybe it will come again from unexpected directions. I met my late husband in the most unlikely way imaginable: we were introduced in 1988 by a man I’d met through a personals ad in New York magazine – and rejected. It was a comically horrible first date in which this handsome guy basically did a marriage interview and told me that, according to his list of requirements, my hair was too short and my apartment too distant. And yet, he thought enough of me that months later, after he met his soulmate, he wanted to introduce me to a truly fabulous friend of his. After our first meeting, Dick and I were a couple until his death.

When I nuked my account, within hours I was receiving messages from OurTime, a site for singles over 50, offering me men they were sure were just perfect for me. I laughed hysterically because, believe it or not, the very first guy they offered to me was the very first guy I met in person when I started my online dating “journey” 5 years ago. I sometimes run into him in the supermarket, and I’m not any more attracted to him now than when we briefly dated.

It’s no fluke, my friends, that I was hearing from another dating site immediately after breaking up with Match. I discovered that the parent company of Match, Match Group is basically a dating monopoly that owns almost all the major dating apps including Match, OK Cupid, Hinge, Tinder, OurTime and more.

I am done with the dating industrial complex! Love does change everything, but romantic love is not the only kind. An Indian astrologer in Jaipur told me that I’ll find a deep love in the next three years, but that’s probably because I’m about to adopt a cat. Right now, I just want to lean into my elderhood and not worry if that makes me less desirable. I want to live my life, not perform it. It will feel so liberating and luscious when I no longer associate my charming local coffee shop with awkward first dates.

Copyright Meg Cox. Reprint only with permission. Art by Meg Cox.

April 17, 2023

Social Rituals in Plague Times

A woman I know who lives in California has a dear friend who lives in Texas and for years the two would send each other occasional texts or emails saying, “When’s our next virtual coffee break?” They would settle on a time and then sit in front of their respective screens – sometimes with coffee, sometimes with wine – and catch up on each other’s lives. One of the bonds between the two was that both are quilters. Jamie Fingal, the quilter who lives in California, made the quilt above, called Soul Sisters, to celebrate this vital friendship ritual.

With so many of us forced to huddle at home to slow the spread of the COVID 19 virus, I was reminded of the potency of something as simple as a virtual coffee break. Now it’s beginning to sink in that we may be hermits for not just weeks but months and I’m here to argue that we’re going to need LOTS of inventive and heartfelt social rituals to keep connected. As the author of four books on family tradition, I’m someone who thinks a lot about the power of personal and community ritual, so I’m using my two decades of research and experience to try to spark a conversation and encourage people to try this for themselves

I feel like many of us have already figured out how to move our work meetings online. I’ve been doing online story “pitch meetings” for Quiltfolk magazine for months: we’ve all been working virtually from the start, with the publisher and staff scattered from coast to coast. Lots of work has been accomplished in this country remotely for some time, and not just by “gig economy” workers like me.

Under the recently imposed limitations on personal contact, other essential spheres of my life have now moved online: I’ve begun experiencing Sunday worship via Facebook Live. Just this week, I took my first workout class virtually, a barre class from the Bar Method franchise here in Princeton, using the Zoom app on my Mac laptop. It felt personal partly because the instructors admired everything from our individual postures to our pets and silly socks, while themselves wearing tutus to match their t-shirts. Sure, I miss coffee hour at church and the extra energy from taking a class with a room full of other women. But I felt like I “got” a worship experience and a workout.

But there is more to life: I need more. Some of us are stuck at home all by ourselves, or maybe we share our dwelling with family members and pets. Whatever our situation, we all desperately need social connections out past our walls. I keep thinking of the poignant videos on social media recently of all the quarantined Italians signing together out their windows and on their balconies. Those incandescent moments of humanity connecting have a vitality like nothing else.

Already this time feels a little like the Groundhog Day movie and I plan to use some of my repetitive plague days working cumulatively on my own skills, like free motion quilting and meditation. But I don’t want to feel isolated from people. Truly, how can we all find meaningful rituals of connection in our indefinite plague state? Here are some ideas I hope will inspire you. It  would also make me immensely happy if you contribute your own experiences and suggestions in the comments. 

Celebrate remotely:  A group of close women friends from my yoga class were supposed to come to my house on Friday night for a long-planned dinner in honor of my birthday. They were making all the food and I was just tasked with setting the table. Of course the celebration was cancelled. But a crazy thing happened at 6:30 pm that night, the time when everyone was supposed to arrive at my house: my cell phone started pinging. One by one by one, each of my guests texted a short video full of love and good humor, with a drink or bottle in her hand. (Here is one, from the ring leader: IMG_2457) It was like a virtual circle hug that made me cry. I quickly poured a glass of wine and texted a video toast right back, my eyes still wet. 

No matter what else is going on in life, we all have milestones to mark (and if we don’t, we need to make some up specific to our new situation. Did you get through a week without murdering anyone in your house? Celebrate that.) Is there someone in your life who should be deluged with orchestrated videos and messages of love and support? The mail still works too: orchestrate a postcard campaign, send flowers, or books. Get creative: if you know an out-of-work musician (i.e. any musician), hire him or her to tape themselves singing or playing a song (cheerful or sardonic, you know your friends), and text or email that video. 

Attend a Virtual Book Group:  I haven’t belonged to a book group in ages but now I’m itching to start a virtual one for the duration of this plague. It’s easy to do and there are multiple ways to work it. One is to create a private Facebook page and then invite your friends. You can just pick random books you’re eager to read or go with a theme. But this is also a great use for online gathering platforms like Zoom or Google Hangout. I know Zoom better and it’s easy to learn and free for a small group: you can see everyone’s face and have a real conversational flow (you may need a leader to stay on topic). Here is a link to a terrific article on how to use Zoom. 

If it sounds like too much work to set one up virtually, here’s the low-tech version: just reach out to another friend who loves the kind of books you do. Decide what book you’re going to read this week and then discuss it on the phone together at the time of your choosing. If you are fine being part of a much bigger crowd, there are some excellent online book groups. Here is a good list of online clubs to get you started (but before you get too excited, the Emma Watson feminist book club is now dormant.)

And finally, we resilient people keep dreaming up new ideas in our time of need: some folks out in San Francisco started something called the Quarantine Book Club, which anyone can join. Authors whose book tours were abruptly canceled are giving scheduled online versions and the full line-up is right HERE. To keep out trolls and bring in a little money, you pay $5 to attend, which is all explained on the site. 

Schedule Watch Parties for the Entertainment of Your Choice:  I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t watch television award shows or political debates without my phone in hand, reading the simultaneous comments and critiques (usually from the NY Times). If you’ve got a TV or computer at home right now, you have a pretty endless buffet of viewing options, an overwhelming amount actually. But why not make that a bonding experience by watching with distant close friends and texting the whole way through. Whether it’s documentaries or romcoms, war movies (that would have been my husband’s choice) or manga classics (my son’s preference), make a plan and put it on your calendar. Again get creative, the Metropolitan Opera is now offering free streaming of great performances straight to your computer at 7:30 pm nightly: dress up, sip champagne. Got tiaras? 

For those who are tech-savvy, there are even some apps you can download so that you can have watch parties of shows on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu and see each other’s faces on your computer screen at the same time. Here is an article from the site TechHive explaining how all that works and which app they recommend.

Cook Together Apart:  In several of my books I wrote about the tight-knit Gines family and some of their traditions designed to help the extended family feel close. On an evening right before Thanksgiving, every household starts baking Grandma Betty’s pie recipe at the exact same time and while they are baking, Grandma Betty calls each grandchild up for a private chat.

What’s your version of that? My friend Beth Nichols recently posted on Facebook that she and her daughter Sami, who lives in Minnesota, often “bake long distance,” making the same recipes and comparing notes. “We chat as we go along,” said Beth. “Like, my dough is sticky now, is yours?” Last week, they were both making shortbread and trying to get it to taste like the butter cookies they had eaten in Scotland (close but no cigar is what I heard).


Play Games Online: There is something about solving a puzzle or playing a game remotely that connects people more deeply than mere conversation. I know this because in the last years of my mother’s life, when she was confined to bed with late-stage emphysema and battling horrors like bedsores, we continued our ritual Sunday phone chats. And one thing that became a regular feature was Mother asking me to help her complete the local newspaper’s crossword puzzle. The fact that it was a cooperative problem-solving moment lifted us out of the medical context and into a give-and-take normalcy that was immensely comforting. 

These days, there are vast internet resources for playing games together while apart for every age and taste, from Bingo to chess. Parade magazine just published an article titled “The 22 Best Online Games to Play With Friends During the Coronavirus Outbreak.” In addition, the awesome Wirecutter website reviewed a ton of board games to find the best ones for grownups, and a recent Wirecutter article said most have online versions. 

One other possible resource I just learned about to help bring the generations together is from a company called Kidvelope. This is pitched especially to grandparents and consists of “mission adventure games” you buy and send in the mail. The kids get a boxed activity kit and then you work online jointly to solve problems. It looks like fun but I haven’t tried it myself. 

Daily Rituals of Connection and Comfort: For the people nearest to your heart, however far distant they may be currently, think of some small daily ritual you might perform virtually, from a shared prayer at bedtime to a daily check-in call. I know families who had a bedtime ritual of “grateful and grumbles,” where the kids and the parents shared both, but had to end with the happier list of gratefuls for that day. Might something similar work for you and a loved one?

Or maybe it’s that virtual coffee break. Or wine break. I have a friend in real life who is currently going live on Facebook every day at 5 pm, when she plays a song she loves and dances in her kitchen, inviting friends to dance along and share photos of themselves doing so. 

Maybe you need to create your own version of a quarantini and start a virtual happy hour for your tribe! (Important health announcement: although there are tons of quarantini recipes online that include vitamin-C supplements, the maker of Emergen C has pointedly said that its product isnt a cocktail mixer. My advice is to make a quarantini that tastes good which definitely wouldn’t include that orange powder. You are welcome.)

I plan to add more examples to this post when I find them. And I can’t wait to hear what new and rejiggered rituals are helping you keep close to those you love. 


Burning Man: Did I Find My Circus Tribe?

        The theme of Burning Man 2019 was Metamorphosis, and this was reflected in everything from street signs and giant art projects to the stickers handed out by individual camps. But I suspect that title would fit any year. Burners build a city of 70,000 in the middle of the Nevada desert every August, where for a week-plus it becomes the third largest city in the state. What could be a bigger metamorphosis than that?

         I went for the first time this year and I’m quite sure my metamorphosis has only begun. This was the most creative and engrossing place I’ve ever been in my life and although it’s taken me more than a week to readjust to the “default world,” I can’t wait to go again. 

        Two of my biggest expectations were met: I expected to be bowled over by the scale and creativity of the big art projects scattered in the open desert around the central figure of the Man. And I expected that the 100-degree days, frequent dust storms, lack of WiFi and cramped camping (without the ability to buy anything but ice or coffee at the site) would frustrate and exhaust me. You betcha. There was also anxiety around the fact that I would inhabit a small tin box for 12 days with John Paul, a friend from high school with whom I had spent a total of 4 hours face-to-face in the past 44 years. We had reconnected on Facebook and bonded over the fact that both of our husbands had died and online dating sucks. But this was a huge leap of faith on both our parts. 

                  Here we are on our front porch, set up and open for company. 


        And here is me on Day 11 (having decided that 30-second showers every 3 days are no big thing. The playa dust makes my hair look thicker….)

     To be clear, John and I had our “WTF have I done” moments. It took me days to acclimate. We got there early because he had daily shifts at the Gate. This meant I had to plot my own wobbly beginner’s course. But I had the huge privilege of watching the city being built and populated before my eyes and came to understand the deep bond between the veterans who do the gut work that makes the city tick. John and I are both morning people with a default mode of cheerful problem-solving, which helped. He loved sharing his favorite burner experiences and sights and I loved his passion and generosity in doing so. I loved that he wrote on our whiteboard: “Widows’ Camp. Both Looking for Men.” And that he gave me a pink t-shirt reading “Extremely Huggable: Try Me,” to wear with my black tutu on Tutu Tuesday (it worked!)

       What didn’t I expect? Spontaneous magic and deep community.

       Every day, something amazing happened as I explored, especially in our neighborhood around 5:00 and Diana. Coming back from a yoga class one morning (and the class was in a beautiful tent with the sky overhead), I was startled by a real-sounding police siren. This tall guy dressed in orange told me to “pull over” and I was given a hot pink ticket for a “style violation.” My newbie bike didn’t have enough bling and I was directed to an area with bins full of beads, fake flowers, stuffed animals, ribbons and more, to reverse my infraction. It was jarring, then delightful.


         Another day, I biked around the playa exploring art with a campmate and she photographed me inside the letter “O” within a sculpture that spelled out the word LOVE. That night, we ate smoked meat cooked by an Australian chef at a friend’s camp and one of the guests had worked on that very sculpture. Thousands of bird shapes were cut from the metal letters and this guy had a pocket full of metal birds: he gave me one as a souvenir.

        Maybe my favorite magic morning was the time my front tire blew and it looked like I’d need to limp back to camp. Less than a minute later, a shirtless guy walked up to us and said, “Would you ladies like to follow me to that white van over there? Just give me 10 minutes.” If someone said that to you in NYC, you’d run the other direction but this guy was a skilled bicycle repairman, who fixed my bike in a flash. Free, like everything else in Black Rock City. And right after that, me and campmate Marsha found the Burning Globe, a camp of theater geeks whose thing is providing Shakespearean tarot readings. Whatever card you pick has a fitting Shakespeare quote on the back: you mount a stage and “perform” your quote while a trained thespian stands behind you, feeding you the words.

        Much of the magic came from private, one-on-one encounters but the big public events (listed in the 190-page WhatWhereWhen booklet we got on arrival) could also be amazing. The time I had the biggest grin on my face might have been when John and I went to experience the New Orleans jazz funeral the day after they burned the Man, joining the Second Line parade to the large flat burned-out spot where the Man once stood. (I’m going to post a minute-long video with sound on FB but here is a photograph of the parade starting out. Also, if you click on this link here, you can watch short videos of the jazz funerals at Burning Man in 2011 and 2015.)

          As I said, the artworks were spectacular. More than a single vast museum could ever house, they rarely had instructions and were often interactive. I could fill a dozen blogs just about the art but I’m adding on a video at the end that showcases an array of sculptures. I’ll just share one of my personal favorites, the Shrine of Sympathetic Resonance, a 40 foot tall, wooden building with 90 piano harps embedded in its walls. It was glorious and the morning I walked through, there was a lone man playing a trumpet inside. I spoke with him later and learned his playa name was Satchmo and he was from Philadelphia.

        Someone told me that Burning Man is “70,000 people who’ve let down their guard.” That makes for lots of hugs and open conversation. I especially loved the easy intimacy we developed with neighbors, people who walked past our camp to use the porta potties (the one decorated with New Yorker cartoons was a favorite). Camped near us were the Iron Monkeys, a collective of metalworkers from Seattle whose playa installation, the Plaza of Introspectus, included multiple fire-spouting structures. One of our beloved monkeys was Dave, who was often seen carrying a basket full of nail polish so he could paint the nails of random lucky burners.

       (A word about who camps where: unaffiliated people who manage to secure tickets are guided to open camping areas. The more organized camps, either work camps (the residents perform some vital service as volunteers) or theme camps (residents provide entertainment or goods/services to passersby) get placed closer to the front of the horseshoe-shaped residential area, where the action is. )

           Just wandering around and meeting people actively involved in building and maintaining Black Rock City made every day memorable. Like Andrea, the British artist whose sculpture of two giant dancing bees was “designed to be a jungle gym for grownups.” I met her randomly on the street but the next day found her polishing the copper ballet slippers on her sculpture, out on the playa.  Or Tito, one of a group of volunteers called Man Watchers who make sure no one tries to climb, ignite or otherwise disturb the Man before the Burn on Saturday night.

Me and Tito, under the Man

Andrea Greenlees, creator of the Bee Dance sculpture

         I could go on for days. How fun it is to travel around looking for the camp that gives out free ramen or the one near us, License to Chill, whose gift to burners is free snow cones (the daily special includes liquor), or the other where they’ll wash your dry, cracked hands with lavender water and then cover them with soothing cream. I stumbled across the Black Rock Public Library, where you take their used paperbacks out for a year and they use the Screwy Decimal System. I haven’t even talked about the Temple, a structure farther out than the Man, where people take items of remembrance from lost loved ones which burn with the Temple on Sunday night. I attended an amazingly powerful memorial service there, before the burn, run by a camp called ReligiousAF. I’m saving that story for another time and place.

Eating free ramen

Librarian at the Black Rock City Public Library

Outside the Temple of Direction before Sunday night’s burn

         People think Burning Man is all about nudity, drugs, sex and music and they aren’t completely wrong. There are multiple organized events for naked or topless cyclists but also an ultra-marathon for hardcore runners. There is free alcohol everywhere but you can also go to an AA meeting. Yes, there are massive discos with acres of flashing LED lights where DJs preside over thumping techno beats, but also cozy tented venues that specialize in bluegrass music or jazz. There’s even an orchestra that plays multiple times during the week. I might have imbibed a wee bit of cannabis and laid on my back with John Paul inside a geodesic dome whose mosaiced panels constantly changed color overhead and we definitely went to a burlesque performance. But I didn’t go looking for the Orgy Dome (for those who asked). It’s a no-spectators scene and you have to go with a partner(s) and get busy. Even with volunteers handing out lube and wipes? Not for me.

Critical Tits parade, 2003. Photo by Marc Merlins

Please note: I didn’t take this photo. The Orgy Dome may or may not look like this.

        But then all of Burning Man is a “No Spectators” zone, which is partly what makes this place feel engaging and authentic in our passive, voyeuristic age. There’s a lot less FOMO being felt when each of us is deeply immersed in the thing we’re doing and the people we’re doing it with. Staying in a place where there’s nothing to buy, no WiFi, no television and no advertising, it’s astonishing how stimulating a simple conversation can be. People may dress up in outlandish costumes at Burning Man, but they also feel free to let their humanity hang out. Radical Self-expression is one of the 10 Principles, and so is Radical Inclusion.

So here are John and I watching the Man burn on Saturday night after fire dancers surrounded him, fireworks shot up from the ground and flames exploded from his chest. The crowd cheered when his skeletal form fell backward off the pedestal. I’m not wearing my light-up giant headdress at this moment, so the people behind us can see the action. Somehow, I don’t have a single photograph of myself costumed that night in white from head to toe, including white lace fingerless gloves. I was living so deeply in that rich, embellished moment, I didn’t make plans for Instagram.

The Man burns in 357 days!

Standing within an AMAZING and elaborate art piece/building called The Folly. Please Google it!


Want more? Here is a short video that gives a tour of the art. I like it because the “tour guide” circles each piece he visits. (Not comprehensive.)


 And this is a lip sync video that I think really captures the feel of the whole event. It will help you to understand that every person who comes to Burning Man, even first-timers, is greeted with “Welcome Home.” (And yes, there is roller derby at Burning Man.)

If you want to read more, including about the event’s history, why the Burning Man org hates being called a Festival, and how the 10 Principles shape everything, go here. 

Will I meet you in the dust next year?


The Lynching Memorial & Legacy Museum

     I had never been to Montgomery, Alabama but I went recently to bear witness to a profound and important new monument. Bryan Stevenson is a human rights lawyer who has spent his entire career trying to bring justice to the wrongfully convicted and he wants to free more than one man at a time: he wants to awaken the entire country to the continuing evils of racism, to the way in which slavery has never ended but only evolved.

      Last year, I read Stevenson’s powerful bestselling book Just Mercy, and then I had the privilege of hearing him speak (listening to his riveting 2012 TED talk will give you a good taste). When I read in a New Yorker profile that he was about to open a memorial to the victims of lynching in this country, I felt both squeamish and curious. Why do this? And how? 

      I decided I wanted to see it with my own eyes, and although I’m not a professional activist, I decided to attend the 2-day conference on civil rights that Stevenson’s organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, was going to hold in Montgomery the same weekend the memorial opened to the public. 

        What I saw on a hilltop in Montgomery was a sacred site, brilliantly conceived as a way to feel the true weight of a terrible history. There is a blunt spareness to the memorial and a disconcerting dissonance when you enter: the sides are open to the surrounding greenery and city views in the distance, but inside, you feel claustrophobic. You are surrounded by rows of heavy, metal boxes the size of coffins standing upright. Each monument represents a county in the United States where the staff of EJI documented at least one lynching: there are 805 of these death boxes. 

       Inscribed on each monument, carved into the metal, are the names of those lynched and the dates. There might be just one name carved into the metal, or dozens. Some have a date but the name is “Unknown.” The day I went, there was a somber silence as I walked, though there were many people there. At first, I tried to say every name to myself but after several hundred, it became overwhelming. Altogether, there are 4,400 lynchings documented here. As you may have heard or seen in the press coverage, as one turns a corner inside the memorial, the heavy monuments are placed very differently: hung up overhead, like lifeless bodies. This feels ominous in a different way: all that weight, so much heaviness. 

        When you walk through the corridor under these massive memorials, you observe signs on the wooden walls to the left and right listing some of the given reasons why specific people were hanged. One woman was lynched because she protested the lynching of her husband. An unnamed black man was lynched in Millersburg, Ohio in 1892 for “standing around” in a white neighborhood. Fred Alexander, a military veteran, was lynched and burned alive before thousands of spectators in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1901.





        There are some (necessarily) wordy plaques as one walks toward the memorial that explain the history that inspired this cathartic structure. But once inside, verbiage is kept to a minimum. The words below honor the victims and suggest how we should move forward in their names. 


           After the blazing words above, you turn another corner and find a calming sight: sheets of cooling water cascade down a long, wooden wall. And in front of that wall sits a clear plexiglas box shaped like a coffin and filled with dirt from several dozen sites where lynchings occurred. The day I was there, a bouquet of white roses had been placed on top of the box of dirt and I was able to take this photo reflecting the bright sky outside. I walked out feeling like I had attended the memorial service after a massive, senseless terrorist attack: so many victims, no words. 


       And then there is more: a brilliant touch that I didn’t understand immediately. When you walk away from the memorial building, you find yourself in a sort of courtyard space filled with rows and rows of the memorial boxes. It turns out there are 805 of them, a copy for every single documented county: local officials are invited to take these home because real healing can’t happen unless these stories are also memorialized in the specific places where the lynchings occurred. The idea is that as these duplicate memorials are claimed and removed, this courtyard space will be transformed into a lush garden. (You can watch a TED talk with designer Michael Murphy, who says his chosen path as an architect is to create “buildings that heal.” The Montgomery memorial is in the last third of his talk.)

       Bryan Stevenson talks about how other countries that endured brutal attempts to exterminate an entire tribe or religion have come to grips with those evils. There were Truth and Reconciliation commissions. Memorials and museums were built in Germany, Rwanda, South Africa and elsewhere. Slavery and systemic racism are America’s Holocaust as far as Stevenson is concerned, and he believes we’ll never truly be the free and fair country our founding fathers promised until we face these evils. 

       So Stevenson didn’t stop with the memorial to lynching victims. He also wanted to make the case that he’s assembled through years of working in a broken justice system about how slavery morphed into Jim Crow racism after the Civil War and then into lynching and eventually into our current biased system of mass incarceration. The meticulous research that made the lynching memorial possible, the same persistence that has helped him exonerate more than 100 wrongfully convicted people through the courts, is also very evident in the compact museum Stevenson built in downtown Montgomery (photo below). An enormous amount of harrowing information is packed into this small museum, in a former warehouse that housed slaves (and livestock) before they were auctioned off. I’m not going to give a detailed review now because I think the lynching memorial is the more powerful draw and I’ll assume that if you travel to Montgomery, you’ll see both. Montgomery is one of the most rewarding stops on the brand new U.S. Civil Rights trail that goes through 14 states. I hope I’ve convinced you to go!



          I have to close with this: one of the most powerful proofs of Brian Stevenson’s arguments about our biased justice system is one of his clients, Anthony Ray Hinton. Born poor and black in Alabama, Hinton served 30 years on Death Row for murders he didn’t commit and Stevenson had to argue his case all the way to the Supreme Court (where it was unanimous). Free since 2015, Hinton has become a passionate advocate for prison reform and recently released a memoir. After hearing him speak at EJI’s conference, I had the privilege of meeting Ray Hinton, literally in the street, and I have now read his book, The Sun Does Shine. I recommend it with all my heart: it made me cry, but gave me hope. (It also made me laugh: Hinton talks about how a terrific imagination helped him survive Death Row. For example, he pretended for 15 years that he was married to Halle Berry. He also had vivid fantasies of visiting Queen Elizabeth, and now he has, for real.)

A Tour of My Quilt Studio: Celebrating One Year in the New House!

Dear Friends–

       What an eventful year this has been! My son and I were so stressed a year ago as we moved to our new place on the hottest day in July and began to settle in, right before the AC broke down. I’ve shared some of my adventures on social media, including the ways I’ve decorated my living space upstairs with a mix of old and new. I can honestly say the best thing that has happened to me in the past two years (my husband died July 16, 2015) is this new house. I’ve found so much joy in making it mine in every way, and that especially goes for the basement studio/office. This anniversary seemed like a good time to give you a virtual tour of my happy place. 

       I’ll start with the office part. Here is “command central,” my computer and desk, which affords me a view of a gorgeous wooded yard (and when the trees are bare, I can see the D & R Canal and Lake Carnegie from my computer). 



             Right behind my computer here are two file cabinets, table and a bookcase with some of my quilt books. The wall is decorated with some of my collection of mini quilts, a changing show. These five were all Quilt Alliance contest quilts that I bought at auction. 



               Something I just added is a bulletin board: I ordered the fabric from Spoonflower and it’s just glued to some insulation board from Home Depot (3/4 inch thick) and bolted to the wall. 


         And who doesn’t love pushpins in the shape of no. 2 pencils? (I have to thank Laura Chapman, head of communications for the International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln, NE for the maxim.)


   The most spacious and wondrous part of this finished basement space is my quilt studio, separated from my office by a double set of French doors. I bought shelving from Ikea for stash storage and an Ikea kitchen work station for my cutting table, but everything else I already had. Except for the design wall: my first. Which is covered in that awesome gridded gray flannel that you can buy from Liza Lucy @ Glorious Color online. The 2-inch squares mean you can always tell if your blocks and quilt tops are straight. 


          Wait, I have a photo here somewhere showing the design wall: on it is the Stephen Sondheim “Into the Words” quilt that I made for an episode of The Quilt Show, for a Broadway challenge (I’ll let you know when it airs in September.)


             And here’s the view from the cutting table going back to my office (different day, messier cutting table top.)


             I won’t go through all the categories of stash and whatnot, but here is one of my fun baskets: I love words in quilts and I keep my stash of word fabrics here. This is my name tag for the Central NJ Modern Quilt Guild. 


              Another favorite thing in the studio is my work table, a circular butcher block that was in my old kitchen for decades. It got pretty stained and pitted, but it’s a great work surface for drafting patterns, block-printing and embellishing by hand. 


          Another amazing feature of this big wonderful space is a sitting area behind my stash bookcase. My son loves to come down here to read because it’s cooler downstairs than up. And the sofa pulls out into a bed for overnight guests (there is also a guest bedroom and full bath on this lower floor.) On the wall above the sofa are some more of my favorite small quilts: in this case, house-shaped quilts from several Alliance contests. 



               I think you can see why I am so in love with this space! I also have special little mementoes scattered around to remind me of loved ones. There is actually a sink in the office too, with shelves above it where I keep copies of my own books and various treasures, like these childhood toys (my husband had whole armies of metal soldiers). And a little keepsake from our wedding day. Dick also had a ton of toy cars (see taxi). The cement mixer was from the Max collection of tiny trucks, and the two construction dudes, who were called Tex and Dave, each had their own construction vehicles, a backhoe and a dump truck. The wind-up duck and doggie were little toys I bought when I first moved to NYC in the early ’80s: I kept them on my desk at the Wall Street Journal.



             In short, life is good right now. Max and I feel truly, happily at home. Max is headed back to college in the Fall, and we’re both just eating up this glorious summer together. I think Dick would be so happy for us. Thanks for all the support, dear ones!!!!!



To Elf, Or Not to Elf?


 Is there anybody in this country who has never heard of the Elf on the Shelf by now?

Certainly, there can’t be a parent alive in 2016 who isn’t aware of this Christmas tradition that has become a multimillion dollar business in recent years for the family who dreamed it up. For any Amish readers I may have, parents are supposed to buy this little guy (and acres of accessories) and tell their kids that he is a spy for Santa. The children aren’t allowed to touch the elf, whose magic comes alive once he is named by the family. But every morning the kids wake up, they will find their elf in a new spot in the house. Proving that he did travel to the North Pole overnight to give a full report. 

Perhaps it is inevitable that once something becomes this ubiquitous (and financially successful), detractors will arise. But I think that the growing opposition to the Elf on the Shelf is about much more than that. Plenty of therapists and mommy bloggers have pointed out multiple downsides to this tradition. 


Children May Be Scared and Creeped Out

  To be sure, many parents create very clever and sweet scenarios with their Elfs and don’t get all Orwellian about the spying issue. I’m a huge believer in family traditions, and I can’t help but think many kids who’ve grown up with this tradition have felt nothing but love and will have nothing but good memories. You can find thousands of photos on Pinterest of very elaborate and fun Elf tableaux. Here is one of those:


At the same time, there are many creepy and bizarre ones. Granted, I have no way of knowing how many of these are created by adults for other adults, but I dare you to Google “creepy Elf on the Shelf” (or “Elf on the Shelf and murder”). Here is just one example:


Experts Say It’s Better To Reward Good Behavior Rather Than Punish Bad

Most child psychologists argue that it’s better to “catch” your child behaving properly, and praise her effusively, then to pounce on her with scolding and punishment the minute she breaks a rule. Depending on how parents employ their Shelf Elf, this can come off as a punitive, even traumatic episode. 



Isn’t It Better for Kids to Have a Creative Experience Themselves?

Another negative that comes up is that the Elf on the Shelf has become yet another example of competitive parenting, where parents spend hours creating unique photo ops for their little elves, and then triumphantly post the results on social media. One might argue it would be better for kids to have a toy they can play with themselves, and opportunities to nurture their own creativity. 



Please understand, I am not trying to shame any parent who has this tradition. I know many who do, and they are creating wonderful memories for their children, as I said. And I really love counting down the days to Christmas in all sorts of creative ways: you can find lots of examples in my book, The Book of New Family Traditions, and I’ve blogged about creative Advent calendars.

All I am advocating here is that parents consider HOW they use their elf, the net result on their kids, and make sure their tradition meshes with their values. 

Now, in the last couple of years, a new tradition has sprung up in opposition to the Elf on the Shelf, something called “Kindness Elves,” which are now catching on in a very big way. One of the earliest proponents is a mother of four in England named Anna who has a terrific blog called The Imagination Tree. She started doing the Kindness Elves with her own kids and blogging about it, and now she is selling elf sets and accessories and mailing them from the UK all over the world. And some Americans have created their own Kindness Elves to sell. 

Anna at Imagination Tree borrowed from the Elf on the Shelf notion that the Kindness Elves are not toys and get re-positioned nightly by parents. But the idea is rather than being watchful spies for Santa, they give suggestions each day of kind things the children might do. 


The last thing I want to do is push people to buy stuff. But I would like to inspire meaningful traditions that embody a family’s values and make great memories for their kids. You can start a similar kindness tradition by using toy figurines you already have or making them– and you can even shift your Elf on the Shelf to this philosophy. Here is a blog with ideas for doing that from Good Housekeeping, and here is another blog by a parent who made the switch. There are more: this post on the Meaningful Mama blog offers tips and photos on turning your Shelf Elf into a Kindness Elf.


Whatever you do, do it with joy! Kindness can be a major part of your holiday this year, with or without elves. 



How to Avoid a Food Fight This Thanksgiving

Photo by Seattle-based photographer Christine Moody

Photo by Seattle-based photographer Christine Moody

Dear Ones,

        I know this is a fractious, nausea-inducing time in our nation, and many of us are not looking forward to our annual tribute to over-consumption. Especially if we’re in warring political camps within our family groups, Thanksgiving has shifted this year from being a slightly awkward encounter with some of our least-favorite relatives to an exercise in bomb-dodging. 

        But historical and emotional baggage notwithstanding, I believe wholeheartedly in the worthiness of an annual holiday where gratitude is the central theme. As a nation, we’re divided in so many ways, including the ethnic and religious rituals we celebrate other times of year. Thanksgiving is one of the very few holidays we ALL celebrate and it includes plenty of license for flexibility (I once met an Indian woman in line at my local bank and made chit chat about the holiday: she had begun celebrating Thanksgiving since emigrating to the US but doesn’t eat meat as a Hindu, so her family includes a blessing for the absent turkey as part of their annual tradition.)

          So, in the interest of limiting casualties for Thanksgiving 2016, I’m going to offer a few suggestions about ground rules to lay down before the feast. Now, there are many ways to do this, but your best chance of success is to send an email or text to everyone who’s coming to your house a day or two BEFORE the holiday. As the host/hostess, it is perfectly within your rights to set the tone and demand that people come prepared to be gracious. One more thing: I’m a firm believer in the no-cellphones-at-the-table rule. Pretend you’re at the movies: silence them all, no exceptions expect for life-and-death matters, and place them in a box or basket out of the dining room to hinder temptation.


          Decide How to Limit Political Discourse or Keep it Polite

         According to one poll, 33 % of Trump supporters have some Hillary fans in their immediate family, and about 30% of Hillary supporters say there will be some Trump fans at their table. So, there could be conversational sparks, and you may want to limit the politics talk — or avoid it all together. This has to be done on a very personal, family-by-family basis but I think there are several good ways to go here, depending on your tribe’s proclivities. You can simply declare that all talk of politics is off limits for the day. Remind people when they arrive, and you may even create some amusing “No Politics” signs: this one is for sale on Etsy.



                  But there are other options: some families love having an energetic, even argumentative talk about politics and policies, but they still don’t want it to dominate the day. So set some limits: if your family has a settled tradition of taking a long walk together before or after the meal, declare that the walk is the only time when political talk is permitted. If you are going to allow any amount of election talk, then create some parameters and expectations: people need to quietly listen when another person is talking, people need to take turns expressing their views, and you may want to invoke a time-out ritual (the host or designated debate coach could always wear a whistle: I read where one pro-Hillary guy with pro-Trump parents was taking an air horn to keep Thanksgiving arguments from turning into a contact sport.)

                 Keep the Focus on Gratitude

                 Gratitude is, after all, the whole point. And the best way to keep family and friends focused on that is to create rituals for expressing personal gratitude that will keep people occupied. My family always makes a Thankfulness Tree, and it’s fun to sit together and write the things we’re thankful for on paper leaves that I cut out ahead of time. Here’s a blog post I wrote a few years ago, with lots of ways of creating a Thankfulness Tree. Some people go around the table during the meal taking turns saying things for which they are grateful (although this can also turn political): you can even do this exercise alphabetically, so the first person finds something starting with A for which she/he is grateful, and so forth. (And of course there are many more examples in my book, The Book of New Family Traditions.)


                   One way to keep things on the gratitude track is to literally have a script for the meal. For the first Thanksgiving after 9/11, a Jewish group in New York City created such a script, inspired by the Haggadah, a text read by famous during Passover seders. Called “America’s Table,” you can print out this pdf from the American Jewish Council website and assign readings to people, or just use the end as a kind of unison reading:

                “We are thankful for the freedom to speak our minds.

                  We are thankful for the freedom to change our minds…

                  We are thankful for the freedom to work for a better world….

                   In America, each of us is entitled to a place at the table.”


                   Create Fun Distractions And Remember Why You Like Your Family

                   When I teach parents about the awesome tool of “problem-solving rituals” and how to create rituals to deal with a toddler’s tantrums, almost all are some form of pre-meditated distraction. To avoid getting bogged down in political acrimony, plan some fun activities you can do all together or in small groups. What makes your crowd laugh? One way to set the tone for that is appropriate music: I suggest you borrow selections from this awesome Thanksgiving playlist in which every song is about food (“Lonesome Electric Turkey” by Frank Zappa to James Taylor’s “Sweet Potato Pie.”) You are welcome!


                    Have fun! Even if things go badly, you can be grateful that Thanksgiving only happens once a year. 



Decorating As Ritual : A New Life Made Visual

Four months ago, my son and I moved to our new house and it’s begun to feel like home.

While most of the furniture here came from our earlier place, it’s now time to add something new. We honor the memory of my husband Dick, who died a little over a year ago, in all kinds of ways including living with his books, photos and toys. On a bookshelf in the living room, you’ll find one of Dick’s childhood cowboy figurines alongside a Shakespeare “action figure” (he’s holding a magical weapon, his quill pen.) I love seeing these little reminders in every room. 


But we need to make this place reflect our new reality, and I chose to start with the fireplace, the heart of our home. I wanted to hang something deeply meaningful to me over the mantel. I thought back to what had held this place of honor in our earlier house, and for more than 20 years, it was two wonderful black and white photographs that Dick’s daughter Kate took in high school. After her father’s death, she asked to have them back.

So I took my time thinking about what I wanted and about a month ago, the answer flashed into my brain. When Kaffe Fassett gave the keynote lecture at Quilters Take Manhattan in September, one of the slides he showed was of a quilt-like collage that was made from wood salvaged from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. I remembered that several works by that artist had been hung a year ago at the Michener Art Museum in Pennsylvania, while a show of Kaffe’s quilts was also going on. I decided that if I could locate the artist, Laura Petrovich-Cheney, and she had any of those Hurricane Sandy collages left, it would be the perfect object to hang over my fireplace. 


Luckily, I found Laura easily online, and she had exactly the piece I wanted, called “Meadow of Delight” (below). I agreed to buy it and she brought it to my house (I had to wait for the exhibit it was currently hanging in to end). I told her, “This is the perfect metaphor for my new life: you go through the storm, and then you pick up the pieces and make the most beautiful thing you possibly can.”  I love that the distressed wood is pock-marked with nail holes and the paint is peeling. The texture is rough and the edges uneven because this isn’t about perfection: these are remnants of people’s actual lives. Laura knows some of those people and can tell their stories. These bits that survived are full of character, and all together, they make a stunning, hopeful whole. 

Meadow of Delight

Meadow of Delight

The artist said, “You were meant to have this piece.” It is based on a soulful poem that is a Celtic blessing and she sent me a link to a page where I could both read the words and hear the poet, John O’Donahue, read it. The poem made me weep and it fits the work perfectly: this art is a blessing too. 

When I get up each morning and walk toward the piece, I feel centered, ready to enter the next storm, equally ready to draw up a chair before the fireplace and contemplate my happiness in landing in a new place of beauty. 


Note: you may have seen Laura’s distinctive work in the magazine UPPERCASE (and on the cover) of Issue 30, Summer 2016. You can see more of her salvaged wood quilts on her website.   


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!”


            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.


            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.


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.


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.



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.) 


        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.  


        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?)


        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. 


        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.)


        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.) 


        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.)


        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.)



        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. 


        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!






Serious Popcorn: 10 Classy Page-Turners


        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, 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.


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. 



     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. 


2nd place mod traditionalism, Amy Struckmyer



     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.)



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.)




    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.)



      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.)


      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.


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


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.


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.



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:




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):



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!




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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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 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.