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It’s the season for gift giving and I’m sorry that it’s often more of a chore than an act of love.  Lately it’s become an act of war, with people using pepper spray and trampling their fellow shoppers. What could Wal-Mart have that's that precious?

Here are some of my thoughts on gifts and their complications.

In the Nativity story the Wise Men bring gifts to Baby Jesus and then it says “but Mary took these things and kept them in her heart.”   I always thought Mary was stealing Jesus’s birthday presents. It took me a long time to get over my suspicions about her and understand that there are gifts that don’t get wrapped in paper.

You know that book,  Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree?  It’s a classic, supposedly a children’s book which gets held up as an example of true giving.     A headmaster I know read it to a group of little girls.

I have a bone to pick with Mr. Silverstein.

Here’s the story. There’s a tree and a boy.  They have a great time together.     He climbs and swings in her branches, eats her apples and rests in her shade.  Sounds like a fairly heathy boy/tree relationship, right?

Did I mention that the tree is a she?

Then the boy gets older and wants to buy things and have fun, so he tells the tree he needs money.  She says take my apples and sell them. Does he say thank you or offer something in exchange?  Nope.  He takes the apples and goes away and the tree is lonesome.

Now we’re getting exploitive.

Then he comes back and tells the tree he wants a house.  Does she say so get a job?  No, she says take my branches.  He cuts off her branches (ouch!) and goes away to build his house.   Does he say thank you?  Nope.

Now the relationship is abusive.

He comes back and says he doesn’t like his house anymore.  She says take my trunk and make a canoe.  He cuts down her trunk and leaves just a stump.

How is that not murder?

He’s not satisfied until  she give him everything she has, until she’s nothing but a stump.   Actually, he’s not satisfied even then, but he knows she has nothing left to give him.  And he still doesn’t say thank you.

So what’s the message here? Is this what we’re supposed to give-- Everything we have and are so we’re left with absolutely nothing?  Is that supposed to be a happy relationship?  See why I have a problem with a male authority figure reading this to a bunch of little girls?

Okay, I know, Jesus sacrificed himself freely and completely, but he did have expectations for us.  Is the tree God?  Maybe the tree is the Earth, and the boy is humankind.  That makes some sense.

I think we should give as much as we can, give until it hurts even and we should take joy in giving but we should treat ourselves as renewable resources.

It’s hard to find the right gift, but it’s worth the effort.   I once asked my Grandfather Brown what he wanted for Christmas.

“Now don’t be giving me a lot of stuff,” he said.  “You don’t take on baggage at the end of the line.”  I thought about him and the fact that he was always chilly, so I got him flannel pajamas.  When he opened them on Christmas morning he said, “Oh, you DOLL!”  I had hit a home run.

When I was eight I stayed with my other grandparents for a long visit.  They gave me some chores to do and I saved up my money.  It was the first time I was allowed to walk around town by myself so I went shopping  and bought a present for my grandmother-- a teacup with lilies of the valley.  That was her favorite flower, because Jesus was called the lily of the valley.  She opened it and shed a few happy tears and then my grandfather said “That’s a present for me, too.”

Uh oh.    Should I have gotten something for him, too?  Does he feel left out?  Is he mad?  Am I in trouble?

It took me years to understand that seeing me make her happy brought him Joy.  When you give a gift you don’t know how many people you’re actually giving it to.

Which leads to my mother’s mink stole.  My father brought it home from work one day--he couldn’t wait for Christmas.  She was thrilled.  She danced around the living room and gave Dad a very nice kiss. She wore it for years and then stoles went out of style.  It stayed in the back of the closet until she wore it to a Hallowe’en party where a friend, Mrs. B, looked at the stole with longing and said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted a mink stole.”   And Mom said, “Here, it’s yours.”

The next day Mom ran into Mr. B.   “That mink stole!” he said.  “She came into the bedroom in the stole, her high heels and nothing else!  Ginny, thank you for a wonderful night!”

Remember what I said in Organized at Last about passing it on?  How you never know how a thing you don’t use anymore can be someone else’s treasure?

Then there’s the way we receive our gifts.     My mother and my grandmother and grandfather  knew how to accept a gift with joy, but I had another lesson in the way to appreciate  a gift from a little baby.   That's appropriate to the season, don’t you think?

We were visiting my old friend Valerie to meet her son Ted for the first time.   Ted was about a year old, so we bought him a little wooden car.   We didn’t have time for wrapping so we made a big wad of the paper bag and gave it to Ted.   He was delighted with the gift of a big wad of paper and played with it until he discovered the little car and that was even more delightful!

May we always be just as delighted with every gift we receive!  As I said in my title, I wish you all the gifts of this happy season, and I wish you joy in both giving and receiving.

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Color was meant for the perpetual comfort and delight of the human heart, said John Ruskin.  And Georgia O’Keeffe said, “Color is one of the things that make my life worth living.”  I agree.  I love color and I love to talk about it.  I find it every bit as evocative as Proust’s madeleines.
When my brother Robʼs third daughter was born I thought, “This man needs something pink.” The nice woman on the phone at Land’s End assured me that a womanʼs size large extra long turtle neck would fit a slim six-foot man nicely. It was a beautiful shade of pink but did he appreciate it?  “I can’t wear this!”  Honestly, youʼd think Iʼd asked him to put on high heels and lipstick! What is it about men and pink? If you ask me, next to a tuxedo, thereʼs nothing as flattering to a man as a crisp pink oxford shirt. I once gave my husband a pink shetland sweater and every time he got a compliment on it, and there were many, many times, heʼd say, “Takes a hell of a man to wear this color!”  Wouldnʼt they be surprised to know that pink was once the color for baby boys, because itʼs the pastel of red, that most aggressive and belligerent of colors, and gentle blue was for little girls, as it’s the color of the Virgin Mary!

I hope Rob saw the Las Vegas Bull Riders Championships last weekend; they were all wearing pink shirts in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month.   Try  calling one of those guys a sissy!

Pink is also the color of mourning for me.  My grandmother was sick for a long time before she died.   We all knew what was coming--you can see that from my daughter’s entry in her school journal;

This is me  visiting
my Great-grandmother who is resting
because she is sick.

We were staying in her guest house, also called the Lodge.   Early in the morning on July 9, Jessie’s 7th birthday, we got a call from Breida, MomMom’s lovely nurse.

“Barbara, I know you have a busy day, but could you come over here?”

“Brieda, is everything ok?”

She replied in a quavery voice; “No,”  MomMom was gone.  I rushed over to say a last good-by.  After several hours of phone calls and business I looked at Jessie , our birthday girl, and said, this little girl needs a celebration.

So I drove to town and bought a cake, then went to the party store for balloons.  I bought 7 pink and one lavender to grow on and headed out the door.   The spiky chandelier in the entry way caught a balloon and POP!  I went back, they replaced it for free and I headed out the door again, this time holding my bouquet very low.  On the street I passed a woman with a lit cigarette and POP!  I went back to the store and this time I paid for the replacement.  I headed out again, holding the balloons in a tight cluster.   As they rubbed against each other they heated up, the air and helium inside expanded and POP! Just like we learned in fourth grade science class.. The people in the store were definitely not happy to see me.   I asked the helium person not to fill them quite so full and she looked at me like I was speaking some strange language.

I finally got the balloons to the car and put them in the back seat.   They rose up and completely filled the back window, blocking my view.  I backed out of the angle parking space VERY cautiously and tapped an on-coming car ever so gently.   A crabby old man got out to inspect his fender and then drove off ignoring my profuse apologies.   I wanted to say to him, “Sir, if you only know the day I’m having you’d be grateful that all you have to worry about is a non-existent dent to your stupid car.”  I guess it’s a little too much to expect kindness from someone you’ve just dinged.  Let’s not dwell on him.

Louise Russell Swanson loved the Bible and Jesus, and she held an unshakable faith in the resurrection.  In her circle Death was referred to as “Going Home.”  Sojourner Truth said at the end of her life; “I’m not dying--I’m going home like a shooting star!”

I like to think MomMom went home like a burst of pink balloons.

 

 

 

Get out of the revenge business. Free your mind for the work at hand.

 

Revenge? We’ve all got better things to do--like making art

We  read in the daily news that revenge leads to an endless spiral of destruction and death.  The Bible has plenty to say about vengeance and we’ll get to that later.

I’ve seen it first hand.  Well, maybe not total destruction and death but it was bad enough to make me stop and think.

This goes back to dancing school in the seventh grade.   I arrived late and two extra boys were sitting it out, waiting for a partner.  The teacher made them shoot for who would dance with me;  Alan Simenek ended up dancing with me and said to everyone within earshot; “So I lost!”   This is while I have to dance with him! He thought it was so funny he said it about twenty times.  How could I have responded to that with dignity and also utterly quash him--or at least make him feel bad?

After fifty years do you think I can forgive a man for what he said as an awkward 12 year old?   You think?  As Barbara Bush would say, why am I messing my beautiful mind with that?

Here are  two incidents that convinced me to get out of the revenge business.

When I was young I had a bad boyfriend. He wasn't physically abusive but he thought the way to keep me was to make me think nobody else would want me.  He was also unfaithful.  My self confidence took quite a battering but I eventually got out of town and found a much nicer boyfriend.  I spent many years thinking of what would be a fit punishment for that bad boyfriend.  A slow painful death?  Living in the street?  He went on to marry and have children but his wife left him for a woman.  That would have hurt his ego in a big way.  In all my vengeful fantasies I hadn’t come up with that one.

When my kids were little my fellow playground parents and I tried to get the city to make some improvements in a local park--nothing fancy, just self closing gates and some clean sand.   Other people in the neighborhood felt we were invading their personal space and they fought back with a vengeance. They hung signs on my building accusing me of financing my lavish life style by embezzling park funds and sent me a registered letter demanding to see our books.   One gravel voiced dame called us "the mothers--and I use the term in the pejorative."   I had plenty of sleepless nights thinking up the perfect response.   However, lately, and this is 25 years later,  I’ve seen the ring leader around the neighborhood and she has something wrong with her back so that she walks bent over completely at the hip, like--a wicked witch.  I swear, I wouldn’t have wished that on my worst enemy, which she sort of was.

Saint Paul talks about this in his letter to the Romans.  Now, a lot of people, especially women, have issues with Paul, because he said women should keep silent in the church and should submit to their husbands.  I know of one eminent clergyman who grew up knowing nothing of Paul because his church lady mother literally cut all of Paul’s letters out of the family Bible.   But, like everything interesting in life, Paul is complicated.  Many of his letters open with cheerful and loving greetings to the women who, even in his day, were the backbone of the church. So I’m going to forgive him for what I don’t agree with and not reject him completely.

This is what he says about Vengeance.

“Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Live in Harmony with one another...do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  If it is possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord.”

I have seen with my own eyes that when the Lord says; “Vengeance is mine,” He doesn’t mess around.

But maybe I shouldn’t blame the Lord.   Maybe meanness is a scorpion that  curls back upon itself and the punishment for meanness is living a life of meanness.

And that’s so not me and you!

Do you have a revenge fantasy taking up space in your mind?   Post it here.   Get it off your chest, free your beautiful mind and

 (Here’s another motto for your bulletin board)

Mariano Rivera breaks the record for saves.
The Saver of the Ninth

I made this drawing in 2000--I've always been a Mariano groupie.  The background is the top of the old Madison Square Garden, designed by Stanford White.  See my Baseball in Heaven page under portfolios for a discussion of Baseball's spiritual elements and its place in our world.

 

 

How I got Neat and Tidy in only fifty short years. But what about the kids?

Organized at Last

How I got clutter-free and organized in only fifty short years

Part 2

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE KIDS?

Okay, I admit that one reason my house is neat is that my children have flown the nest.   I miss them but it’s nice to know where the scissors are.

Cleaning my room was the great battle field of my relationship with my mother--She who Must be Obeyed.  I was required to wear a smiling face and a pleasant disposition at all times and  being “fresh” was a cardinal sin, maybe even a mortal sin, for which I'd be sent to my room.  My room was one place where I had autonomy and that may be why I kept it messy.  It drove her crazy.

So it comes as no surprise that when I became a mother my kids kept messy rooms, and I mean messy--my husband says the cleaning lady crossed herself at their doorstep.

I had to decide if I was willing to engage in the battle my mother did.  I was not.  Her constant nagging only taught me to ignore her.  So I closed the door, gave the cleaning lady a pass, and let the kids have their mess,reminding myself that I didn’t have to live like that--my own room was as neat as I wanted it to be.

For the sake of peace, domestic harmony and sanity stay out of your children’s rooms and do not comment on the condition of said room.

But as everything in life, there must be limits, so here are a few  rules.

1. Respect Privacy

Do not ever EVER, read a diary or a letter that belongs to someone else, and if you do, don’t then comment on it.   Your kids should know that papers that are put away will not be invaded.  I never read a diary, but if a paper was crumpled up under the bed I felt that it was fair game and I told them that.

There's an exception to this rule and that is; unless health  and safety  are jeopardized.

2. No Food left for more than a week

I have a friend who asked her son if the girls in his co-ed dorm visited his room.

“Well, no, they’re afraid of the bees.”    The BEES?

It seems there were so many half empty beer bottles and soda cans that the room was full of bees.  Food attracts ants, mice, cockroaches, RATS, Raccoons, Coyotes--BEARS!!   INSECTS THAT STING!!!!!!!

Parents must be allowed to enter to remove dirty dishes and uneaten snacks.  When you do this, do not look around, it will only depress you.   You could, of course, have a no food in the bedroom rule.  Good luck enforcing that.

3. Never help in the search for lost objects

When they are desperately seeking the homework, the backpack, the keys,  simply say, “If you start to clean up your room I’m sure it will reveal itself.”

My kids hated me for saying this but it reduced stress for me.

When I couldn’t find my own glasses I offered a monetary reward.

4. Give fair warning before the major cleaning

With this hands off approach there needs to be a periodic cleansing, or purge.  It’s best to do this when they are out of the house for an extended period, and I always warned them that that which was not put away would go to the garbage or the Salvation Army.  When they returned they actually enjoyed the neatness for a minute or so before they reverted to their natural state.

5. Have a little respect

This is a true story told by my uncle Dave to his big brother, my Dad, in about 1935.  Dave was at the home of his friend, Charlie Medd with some other boys.  One of them noticed Charlie's Teddy bear on his bed and teased him about it. "Oh man are you still sleeping with a Teddy bear?"

Charlie, to save face, said to his mother; "Haven't you thrown that old thing out yet?"

Mrs. Medd grabbed the bear, threw it in the trash, and took that out to the curb for the garbage man.  The Teddy was irretrievably gone.  As Dave reported, the other boys couldn’t bear to look at the pain on Charlie’s face.  Thirty years later my father was still shocked by the cruelty of that act and he wasn't even there.

So have some respect. What may be a rag to you is precious to someone else--someone you love!

Somehow we all survived and I recently had the joy of visiting my daughter in her new home, where she proudly showed me her pantry with its neatly organized shelves.

After de-briefing myself on the battles my mother and I waged I have come to the conclusion that a tidy house is nice but nothing besides actual safety is worth a battle.  And tidiness isn't everything.  I once had a friend whose house was neat as a pin but she occasionally forgot to pick up her kid as school.  Moderation is a good thing, even in being tidy.

Here's a gift for you;  I printed these words and hung them over my desk.  They come from Haydn's Creation, where God parts the waters and creates the land.   Feel free to take it and use it for your own inspiration.

 

 

 

 

We live less than two miles from the World Trade Center.

September 11, 2011  A day for Remembering

I kept the e-mails I sent to family on September 11 an in the days that followed.  Here are some excerpts.

Subj. This morning Date: 9/11/01

We live less than two miles from the World Trade Center.  As I walked out this morning I saw people on the street all looking downtown.  someone handed me binoculars and said the WTC was on fire.  I went to vote where a neighbor told me that a plane had crashed into the building.   When I was inside the second plane hit and we knew it was a terrorist attack.   I walked across town to buy some art supplies and in the store someone said  the Pentagon had been hit.   The manager said he was closing the store an everyone had to get home.  They’ve closed the subways and all ways in and out of the city.  As I headed home I heard all the people on Fifth Avenue scream and that was when the first tower collapsed.

Say a prayer for all those souls, for the emergency workers and for our country.

Love,Barbara

 

Subj.  Sunday-Monday

Date: 9/17/01

 

Today our church was as packed as it is for Christmas and Easter.  We sang ”A Mighty Fortress is our God,”  “There is Balm in Gilead” and “America the Beautiful”,  all three full of words to cherish but two lines really spoke to me.  “Oh Beautiful for heroes proved...who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life.”  Our firefighters, police and emergency workers, the iron workers and construction workers are such heroes.

These words from Thomas Wolf were printed in the bulletin; “To lose the earth for greater knowing, to lose the life you have for greater life, to leave the friends you loved for greater loving, to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth, whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending, a wind is rising and the rivers flow.”

The scripture lesson was from Romans, Chapter 8; “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”  The friend sitting next to me gasped at these words.  They’re hard to understand but when was the Bible ever easy?

This evening I walked along the Hudson River and watched the sun go down over New Jersey. (It was more poetic than it sounds.)  Part of the park there is under construction and people have tied yellow ribbons all over the chain link fence, each ribbon holding a message.  Everyone wants so much to do something. Day spas are offering free massage and treatments to all relief workers, coffee shops near Ground Zero are giving free coffee and snacks, the animal hospitals are offering help in retrieving pets who were abandoned in the first evacuations.

Love, Barbara

 

Subj:  Thursday

Date:9/20/01

Things are struggling back to normal here, or to whatever normal is going to be from now on.  People are saying that the feeling in the air here is sad.  I don’t know if I would call it sad.  I think there’s more eye contact made and we’re all trying to be gentle with one another.  Everyone seems to be thinking about the same thing and all irony has been eradicated.  Flags are everywhere as I guess they are in the rest of the country.

As we sing “God Bless America” and as we consider what we will do in response to the attacks, saying “Wanted Dead or Alive”, and “Let’s bomb them all” I hope we also sing America the Beautiful, especially the third verse:

“America, America, God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.”

Some are holding God responsible.  That’s a place I won’t go to.   I don’t have answers but I know what I learned with our family’s losses--of Larry, Matt, Mary Gae, Joy Joy and Dave; that if I were to blame God and turn away I would lose the source of comfort and strength that is always there.  As William Sloan Coffin said at the death of his son, God’s heart was the first to break.  I believe that all those innocent souls, all those happy faces on the posters for the missing, when they left this earth mounted up with wings as eagles, as it says in Isaiah.

Did I say I wan’t feeling sad?  Here is a verse from Jeremiah that has always helped me; “For I know the plans I have for you-plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Love, Barbara

 

Subj:  Two weeks after

Date: 9/25/01

 

I voted today, which is what I was doing when it happened  I cam out of the polling place and looked down Washington Street and tried to remember what the towers looked like.  I can’t remember where they fit in the landscape, or how tall they were.  It’s like when you lose someone and can’t remember his face.  I look at pictures of the towers and can’t believe how tall they were.  It’s like leaving a funeral and thinking, Wow, there’s so much about her I never knew.  The twin towers were my least favorite landmark here because they were so out of scale and so uninteresting to draw but now I miss them terribly and regret all the mean things I said about them.

The 8x10 missing posters are still papering the wall of the city but their meaning has changed.  They’ve become memorials; they say, this is what she looked like-I need you to know about him, how much he meant to me.

When we said good-bye to Uncle Dave in January Arthur said to me, That’s enough funerals.  And I agreed.

Love,

Barbara

 

 

 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

 

That’s what I had to say then.  On September 15 Captain James Gormley of Engine Company 40 at Amsterdam and 66th posted a letter in the neighborhood  in which he spoke of the men missing from his company.  At that time he still held out hope for their rescue.

He ended his letter with these words;

“Pray.  Do not underestimate the power of prayer.  Hope remains.  Make your hope contagious.  Inspire confidence in one another.  Be polite to each other, it makes life easier.  If you despair, act courageously.  If you are scared, stand up straight and march forward.  That’s what we do.  Children, kiss your parents and tell them you trust them.  Tragedy may yet visit us, we will face it. Together.  We are not giving up.  Maintain your health, we have lots of work to do.  Allow yourself rest.  Embrace the path God puts you on.  He has his reasons and he does not tell us his secrets.  Again, I ask you to pray, because Hope remains.”

What I remember about that day is this.  In the afternoon I went out to see what was happening and if there was anything I could do.  I thought of giving blood, so I headed to the nearest hospital, Saint Vincent’s.  The sidewalk outside of Saint Vincent’s ER was lined with gurneys with clean white sheets, waiting for the injured who never came.   I was directed to a place where they were taking blood donations and saw that the line was five blocks long, and they were only taking O-positive.   There was a sign outside my church saying there would be a service of grief and lament at 6.

Everyone was saying; We’re ready to help--we’ll do anything it takes.

I’ve always loved this city, but never more than on that day.

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Here’s my tribute to three wonderful teachers. These are three among many, some who were less than inspired or even kind, but they all made an impression on me.

One school morning years ago I asked my third grade son how he liked his teacher, Mrs. Williams.  He didn’t stop drinking his orange juice, just gave me a thumbs up!  Here’s a thumbs up to all teachers, and here’s to a great school year full of learning and fun.

At the end you’l see that I have a gift for the first 10 readers who respond to my offer.

Mrs. Brilliant--that was really her name--Mrs. Brilliant, my tenth grade Algebra teacher.   I was a terrible math student until I was forced to stay after school for extra help.  Standing at the blackboard I suddenly seemed to be right handed, all became clear and I could do that stuff!

I’ll never forget taking the next test--as I worked on the 10 point bonus question Mrs. Brilliant came by and looked over my shoulder.  When she saw that I had gotten it right her face absolutely lit up with joy. That look has stayed with me all these years as a reminder of how important it is to find the right work, to give it your all and to reap the rewards of a job well done.  Now that’s a teacher.

 Roberto DeLaMonica  taught printmaking at the Art Students League.  Printmaking is paradoxical; it’s terribly messy, but the point is to make a pristine product. Roberto taught us to be meticulously clean in a dirty and toxic medium.My friend who’s a retired ER physician says above all, you have to be prepared.  Roberto made sure we were prepared.

I still treasure his class list--20 pages of sources, instructions and recipes. Before we could make our first print we had to scour the city for ingredients and materials--asphaltum, rosin--who ever heard of this stuff?  And we had to go to the most arcane out of the way businesses, up rickety stairs to places where we had to say the pass word to get in.

Then we had a week or so of cooking--and one recipe said; do not let this come to the boil--it will explode.  Only then could we begin.

Brazilian born, Roberto gave his excellent English a spicy twist.

When a student complained about the mess he said, “Make dirty your hands!”

But you had to keep your paper clean!

He said;  “What’s that word--when you make messy the paper?”

“Careless?”

Roberto;  “Yes--Never careless your paper.”

I have been careful not to careless my paper ever since.

but my favorite Roberto-ism is--”When you have a free hour or even a minute--get to work--use your time to work--it’s money in the bank!”

Robert Beverly Hale taught anatomy for artists at the Art Students League.  His anatomy lectures, each on a different part of the body, but ranging all over creation, were legendary;  he spoke in an elegant mid-Atlantic accent all the while making exquisite anatomical drawings without looking at them.

I could go on writing about Mr. Hale, but I could never do it as eloquently as Phillip Hamburger did in a profile published in the June 13, 1977 issue of the New Yorker.   You can find that piece in the New Yorker Archives, but I have something even better for you.

In 2001, the year of Hale’s centennial, the Art Students League celebrated his gifts with an exhibit of his work and the work of his students, and a booklet with a reprint of the New Yorker profile.  On the cover is a portrait of Hale by Daniel Greene and inside are photographs and a copy of his poem “The Big Nasturtiums”.

I have several copies of this wonderful little book and will send one to you if you go to the contact page of my website and send me your postal address, which I promise not to use for any commercial or nefarious purposes.