I Love My Neighborhood

I love my neighborhood, the Far West Village. In our early days here a visitor said, “Wow, You live in the Boonies.”  

We moved into our home in 1981. It was only two blocks from were we had lived but Washington Street was a line of demarcation between the brownstones of the Greenwich Village Historical District and the factories and garages of our new block. It was remote and industrial but the building had an elevator and we were expecting our second child—who turned out to be Sam.  I’d had it with lugging toddler Jessie, the stroller and the groceries to our third floor walk up.  In those days, Skippy peanut butter came in glass jars, and I was mortified that Jessie repeated what I said when I dropped an extra large jar and it smashed.

Our new block stood between two elevated roadways. To get to our place you walked under the  viaduct line of the NY Central Railroad, dodging what the pigeons roosting there dropped on the street. It was now disused but left alone because no-one knew what to do with it. It was right below our windows. t looked like a wild garden.

To the west we were only steps away from the beautiful Hudson River but the remains of the Westside Elevated Highway, shut down in 1973 due to lack of maintenance, stood in the way.

 A great debate was raging as to what should replace it but in the meantime it moldered, rusting and crumbling, looking like a sleeping dragon. We never went near it.

Next door to us was the Superior Ink Company where the inks I used in my etchings were made.  Some neighbors didn’t like to smell the ink cooking but it was the aroma of art to me.  Across the street was a smokehouse whose smell I didn’t love; it was definitely not like bacon sizzling in the kitchen.  

Next to that, directly across the street from us, stood what was once a Police stable, then the studio and home of artist Lowell Nesbitt, of the massive flower paintings.  When our building became residential and he feared for his privacy he installed in all his windows large stained glass versions of his paintings—on the second floor vegetables, on the third floor, flowers. 

When he turned on all the lights It was beautiful.  

Lowell celebrated the cocktail hour every evening by inviting the young men who hung around the neighborhood to pose for him.  The entrance to his home was the ramp for the horses, and all the walls were covered with huge drawings of comely, naked young men.

Next door to Lowell was a garage filled with busses and a big sign that said,  “Learn to Drive a School Bus.”  Next door to the garage was a bar.

The meat-packing district was only a few blocks to the north; I mean the real Meat-packing district with real meat packing and a lively, maybe even decadent night life. Remember where Glenn Close lived in Fatal Attraction?  That was our neighborhood. 

In 1989 the remains of the Westside Highway were removed and we could see the river and New Jersey beyond.  We heard rumors about what would come next but not much happened—debate still raged.  We’d take walks there but it was still pretty urban and gritty.

in 1991 the railway spur from Bethune Street To Gansevoort that went by our windows came down and real estate developers came sniffing around. The two now empty corner lots at Washington and West 12th quickly because construction sites. The plan for the building right next to us, 756 Washington Street, included a brick wall just twenty feet from our window but our neighbors got together and persuaded the builders to move to a different corner of the lot.  Phew.  

Lowell Nesbitt moved away and Diane von Furstenburg took over his stable and the smokehouse.   After a few years she sold to a developer and in a twinkling everything-the smoke house, the stable, the garage, Superior Ink, the bar on the corner—it all came down.  Now we had four construction sites on our block, all at the same time and another visitor said, “You live on the block from Hell.” 

Well, not quite. I once overheard a young woman describe an ordeal she had live through,

“it was a living Hell but it could have been worse.”  It wasn’t pleasant but it wasn’t Hell.

Now, I have to say, our block is quite posh. There are two elegant apartment houses across the street.  The doorman at number 385 has the keys to our building and helps out if we forget ours and our doorman’s on a break.  He also keeps extra poop bags just in case. 

The site of the little bar on the corner is still an empty lot, with grass growing.  I look there for dandelions.  

756 Washington Street, which had threatened us with a brick wall has an open court yard planted with birch trees, a lovely little Japanese maple, and a pergola entwined with wisteria.

The Superior Ink site is a 17 story condo named the Superior Building; the doormen wear white gloves and always give us a friendly greeting as we walk by.  And we do walk by, because Hudson River Park has bloomed right under our noses.  Arthur and I walk there almost every evening.

Diane von Furstenberg left the block but she remained in the neighborhood and worked tirelessly to transform the old rail line into The HIghLine, a park that is now a destination for visitors from all over the world.—at least once a week someone with exotic accents asks me how to get there.

My sister-in-law said recently, “This place was pretty scary when you moved in.” Nice of her not to say it back then.  Did we feel scared? Did we feel like pioneers? We were just happy to find a place we could afford with an elevator. Did we know such dramatic changes were coming? We had no idea.

In Vermont they say, if you don’t like the weather wait a minute and it’ll change.  We waited 38 years.  We liked it then and we like it now.

Today is My Mother’s Birthday

Today is my mother’s birthday.  She would have been ninety-two.  I can’t picture her as an old lady; she was vigorous up until the day she collapsed on the golf course.  I’m pretty sure that’s the way she wanted it.

 I was born on her twenty-first birthday.  I once, looking for some love, asked her,

“What was the best birthday present you ever got?”  I thought she’s say, “My darling baby girl.”

She replied, “I guess it was the blue bike I got when I was eight.”

“Hey, what about me?”

“Oh, right.  Well, you were nice too.”  Fishing for compliments never pays off.

 It was nice sharing a birthday with Mom. She was energetic and creative and I’d always have a great party.  Then Dad would do something nice for her.  The year I turned nine and she turned thirty I had the first slumber party of all my friends, and the next night Mom and Dad went into the city to have dinner and see The Music Man.  They brought home the cast album and I can still sing every song.

I have many gifts from my mother. One of them is Myopia.  And I ‘m grateful for it. 

When I met Arthur he was directing a play that had this line,

“The whole family was blind as bats; around that dinner table there were thousands of dollars worth of ground glass.”  

“That’s funny, don’t you think? But unrealistic.” Arthur said.

“Well,” I said. “Maybe not…”  That was a pretty fair description of my family’s dinner table. 

When I was eight Mom noticed that I was squinting and a new ritual began.  Going to the eye doctor was important enough that I could skip school and Mom and I made a day of it.  We’d get dressed up and take the train into the city. It was the Long Island Railroad, so we probably arrived at the late great Penn Station, and how I wish I could remember that.  

First the appointment, which was no big deal because eye doctors don’t give shots.  I’d pick out a frame, choosing for myself; my first pair was plaid with little scottie dogs at the corners. 

Afterwards we’d go out to lunch, maybe to the Automat, and then shop for a new winter coat. No little brothers, just Mom and me.

When I put those glasses on I was amazed at the change. Now I could see every leaf, every blade of grass without squinting. Maybe my love for drawing fine detail stems from that moment. 

The new sharpness defined my other way of seeing. Without the details the glasses provided I became more aware of color.  I could shut out the world and turn inward, to my dreams and my imagination.  That didn’t serve my school work but it certainly helped my art.

Mom and I were both adept at whipping off the glasses when a camera appeared. In Junior High I only put them on in class.  But it was important to me to see who was walking down the hall so I learned to identify a person’s posture, body shape and gait.  This came in handy when I studied life drawing in art school. 

That’s a lot of benefits from what might have been a disability.  So thank you, Myopia.

And thank you, Mom.  We had lovely times together.

But as I grew up we found plenty to disagree about. She was always in charge and rarely in doubt.  She moved straight ahead, never had second thoughts, and certainly never asked what I thought.   Even to her choice of paper towels.

  She used Scott Towels and I preferred Bounty, which are far superior.  

I’d say,  

“You know, Mom, at the Printmakers’ Workshop we have to clean up heavy printing ink with Benzine, and we find Bounty to be wonderfully absorbent and you can wring it out and re-use it.  Really, you should try it.”  

“Well, I don’t use paper towels much.”  So why were they sitting on her counter?

On my next visit, when I saw she was still using Scott, I said,

“You know, you get much more for your money with Bounty.” No answer and the next time I visited, there were the Scott towels.  Flimsy, un-absorbent, throw-away-after-one-use,  but she was committed to them.  Why wouldn’t she take my advice when I was so obviously in the right?

 

After Dad died she told me she was considering moving to an assisted living community, but she wasn’t sure.  

Then she said, “Maybe you could come with me to check it out.” I looked at her and thought, without saying, “You’re asking me?”  She never asked my advice. It felt like the beginning of a whole new way for us to be together.  But we never had that chance. A month after that conversation Mom collapsed on the golf course and died eleven days later.

Now that she’s gone she lives inside me. I think about her all the time, and replay old conversations.  For instance, I go with Mom to inspect the assisted living facility.  We look around and she says, 

“Well for Heaven’s sake!  They have Bounty towels here!”  She turns to me, her eyes shining with enlightenment, and says, 

“Oh, Barbara, you were right.”  

It’s Almost Mother’s Day

Sometimes the universe, via the grapevine, the internet, the New York Times or the Bible sends me a message that I can’t ignore. This verse, which I had never heard before, is one of those.  I  found it in a hymnal. It’s from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, chapter 1, verse 5.

“I am reminded of your sincere faith that lived first in your grandmother and your mother and now lives in you. I remind you to rekindle this gift of God for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but a spirit of power and love and self-discipline.”

I thought of my grandmother, Louise Russell, and her daughter in law, Ginny Brown, my mother.  MomMom and Mom. They both married into the Swanson family and both answered to the name Mrs. Robert S. Swanson.  

Mom married Dad at nineteen.  On her first Christmas visit to her new family she got into a pillow fight with her husband, his little sister and three brothers.  MomMom stormed into the room to quiet them down, saying, “Now that’s enough!  I want quiet and that means You-and you, and you, and you, and you, and…” she looked at her new daughter-in-law and giggled.

They were two very different Presbyterian women who loved each other dearly. They both loved Jesus, MomMom with her whole heart and Mom with a few reservations.  

When I was five, and I know I was five because we were living with my grandparents and we moved away when I started first grade, I heard Mom say to MomMom as she heard a song on the radio, 

“Oh, I love this song, ‘Under a Blanket of Blue.’”  It was a pop song and I knew even then that MomMom didn’t approve. She only liked hymns. She didn’t hold with drinking, dancing or smoking. 

Mom’s idea of fun included all three but she never smoked around MomMom.  “When I’m with her I don’t even feel like smoking,” she said.  I understood that.  When I was with MomMom I wanted to be just like her but sometimes it felt like her way involved too much saying no. 

When I was fifteen I tried once again to be a Christian the way MomMom was.  I told Mom. “I’ve asked Jesus to come into my heart—I’m going to be born again,” or something like that.  Mom’s reply was, “Well, OK, but not for too long.”  As always, she didn’t explain herself but I got the point.  She didn’t like the restrictions.  

Recently I had a dream that I was staying in the guest room at MomMom’s house.  It was on the second floor but I found a door and walked out into a beautiful garden, with a fountain and birds singing.  I asked her, “How come I never knew about that garden?”

She replied, “I didn’t think it was safe for you to know about that.”  

Mom loved MomMom dearly and respected her, but didn’t follow her blindly.  She thought you could love Jesus and also go to the prom.  It’s a balance I‘ve been thinking about all my life.  I think these two women  together showed me a spirit of power, love and self-discipline.

Theology in the Air

“Barbara–that woman across the aisle from you–she’s crazy,” said  Arthur. We were on a plane headed to Paris. The flight would continue on to Tel Aviv and we were surrounded by Orthodox Jews and a church group from the mid-west. I really didn’t want to hear about a crazy person. I looked.  She seemed perfectly ordinary—a fresh faced woman in her thirties, attractive in an open, friendly, way.

“Why do you say that?”

“She’s reading the Bible.”

“Arthur, that doesn’t make her crazy.”

“She’s wearing a jumpsuit.” 

Still no red flags for me, but I started paying attention.

\When the stewards came around to offer us lunch the woman next to our neighbor requested a Kosher meal.  

Our neighbor said, “You’re ordering Kosher?   May I ask, exactly what does that mean?”

The Orthodox woman said, 

“We observe certain ways of preparing food, especially meat, and we keep meat and dairy separate.”

“Well, that’s just fascinating. How do you know all that?”

“It’s written in our Holy Book.”

“I see. Now, is that the Quran?”
I thought OY, and waited for at least a verbal bomb but the Orthodox woman simply said, “No, the Quran is the holy book of Islam.  Ours is called the Torah.”

“Well, that’s just fascinating,” said our neighbor and we all settled down to enjoy our lunch.

I’ve told this story for years in a snarky, don’t I know better manner. I’m sorry for that. 

 The lady in the jumpsuit asked, in a polite and friendly way, and the other woman answered in the same manner.  How many times have I turned away, not asking and keeping my ignorance to myself.  There were endless times when If I had only asked, my life would’ve been infinitely simpler and more interesting.

What did I know about Islam?  Muhammed Ali, Elijah Muhammed—it seemed kind of mysterious and forbidding and when Cat Stevens declared himself a Muslim I felt he’d gone over to the dark side.  I lived in ignorance for many years.

I dropped out of college and went to art school but it always bothered me that I hadn’t finished my degree.  I took courses over the years and in 1998 I found out about Empire State College, part of the SUNY system, where adults can get credit towards a bachelor’s degree for life experience.  The Art Student’s League had kept track of the time I studied there and I only had to take one course for credit.  

That course was Indian and Islamic Art.  As in any culture, Islamic art is entwined with the religion so first we learned the five pillars of Islam. 

As I said last week about Passover and Easter, Judaism and Christianity, I’ll focus on what draws us together.

That class made a big difference in my life.  This was a whole new world. I learned that in the Islamic tradition a garden is an earthly depiction of Heaven. The intricate patterns, brilliant colors and slightly off kilter perspectives really spoke to me, awakening my creative yearnings and inspiring a whole new series of drawings. 

My Dad, Robert Sinclair Swanson, Jr.

     Today would be my father’s birthday.  I think about him all the time but today I’ll share him with you.

He and I go back a long way together.

     Dad made friends easily–wherever he went he soon became a regular. It only took two visits to a new coffee shop before the waitresses greeted him by name and had coffee waiting at his table.

     The managers of the Quick Mart where he bought his morning paper invited him to a baby shower for their daughter. Many people would make excuses and most men would hand the gift buying over to the wife, but not Dad. On his own he went to a baby shop and bought two little blue outfits–he knew she was having a boy–and had them nicely wrapped with a blue ribbon. Then he went to a Christian bookstore for a card. 

     “I want a card that’s Christian but not too Christian,” he told the clerk. 

     “I don’t know what you mean,” she said. 

     Dad said, “I’m a Christian. The person I’m sending this to is not. I want to let her know who I am without making her think I’m telling her who she should be.” 

     And the clerk said, “I think I can help you with that.”

     He served in World War II as an infantry scout. He came home, met and married Ginny Brown, Mom, that is, and went to Babson College on the GI Bill. Then he joined the family business.  He started by sweeping the floors and eventually worked every job in the entire bakery, getting to know all the foremen and workers. They all called him Bobby.  He would work a shift then go home, shower, put on a suit and go back to sit in his father’s office and learn the business side.  I’m not sure when he slept.

     Here he is hard at work; in both shots he’s on the far right. What are they making?  Thomas’ English Muffins.

     He worked hard and enjoyed the fruits of his labor.  He loved buying things and firmly believed that if you saved up for something you wanted your satisfaction would be doubled.

     He loved money; not just having and spending but saving it. He collected owl figures because he like to say he was a wise old owl but I think of him as a squirrel, storing away acorns, rather, money, for a rainy day.                                                                                    Photo by Rob Swanson

     He kept his change in a jar on his dresser, and when that was full he’d sort it—pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, then  roll them up in those little paper things and trade them in for five dollar bills.  

     I once said, “Here, Dad, I’ve got three fives for your collection,” thinking I would make it a gift, but he handed me a twenty in exchange.   

   
     “I’m not sure this is a sound banking practice,”  I said. But that was his way. He wasn’t a miser; he’d put those bills into envelopes with our names written on them and pass them out at Christmas time.  He loved giving presents and he always shared.  He told me when he got his first paycheck in the army he divided it by five and sent a share to each of his brothers and his sister.

     He loved baseball.  He was a star pitcher for his high school and the Little League team he coached won five League Championships in seven years.

     After he died Mom got a phone call from an army buddy who’d read the obit in the Tenth Mountain Division Newsletter.  He said, 

     “Boy, when I see him Heaven I’m gonna give that son of-a-gun what for.  I always thought I’d see him again.  You know, Ginny, for all his fooling around, we all trusted him, and we were happy to follow him.  He was a leader.”

     He was a great Dad.  He wasn’t perfect; as he said, there was only one perfect man, but he took the many gifts he was given in life, put them to good use, and shared everything abundantly.

Happy Earth Day, Happy birthday, Taurus!

Earth Day and the First Day of Taurus fall together.  I draw lots of cows but I’ve never done a bull, so I turned to Ferdinand, the bull who only wanted to sit and smell the flowers.  Here’s what  Wikipedia says about this masterpiece written by Munro Leaf (I’ve always loved that name) and illustrated by Robert Larson.

“In 1938, Lifemagazine called Ferdinand“the greatest juvenile classic since Winnie the Pooh” and suggested that “three out of four grownups buy the book largely for their own pleasure and amusement”.[1]The article also noted that Ferdinand was accused of being a political symbol, noting that “too-subtle readers see in Ferdinand everything from a fascist to a pacifist to a burlesque sit-down striker”.[1]Others labelled the work “as promoting fascism, anarchism, and communism”.[4]The Cleveland Plain Dealer”  accused the book of corrupting the youth of America” while The New York Times downplayed the possible political allegories, insisting the book was about being true to oneself.[6]

The book was released less than two months after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and was seen by many supporters of Francisco Franco as a pacifist book.[7] It was banned in many countries, including in Spain (where it remained banned until after Franco’s death).[6]In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler ordered the book burned (as “degenerate democratic propaganda”), while it was the only American children’s book available for sale in Stalinist-era Poland.[6]It received particular praise from Thomas Mann, H. G. Wells, Gandhi, and Franklinand Eleanor Roosevelt.[3]Following the 1945 defeat of Germany during the Second World War, 30,000 copies were quickly published and given out for free to the country’s children in order to encourage peace.[6]”

Yikes!  What a lot to put on a children’s book.  I suggest you read it for yourself, and, while you’re at it, take some time to smell the flowers.

Why is tonight Unlike Any Other Night?

Today is good Friday and the first day of Passover.

When these two holy days come together I think back to my daughter, Jessie’s, first year.  I hadn’t given much thought to her religious education; I was just trying to sleep through the night.  

But it was a big question. Jessie had a Jewish father, Arthur, and a Christian mother, me.  Arthur had very little religious upbringing and I had taken some time off from church after wrestling with some of the issues in my evangelical background. Up ’til that point our biggest conflict had been what to say at our wedding; so—no Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but we did say the Lord’s Prayer.  Arthur said later he loved hearing all his -our-friends speaking aloud for us.

So it wasn’t exactly a conflict, but I wanted to know more. I needed to learn something about Judaism. Where to start?

My friend,Linda, invited me to visit her parents in Florida to celebrate Passover, a holiday I didn’t know much about.  

Her mother taught me to make gefilte fish and motzoh balls and how to set the table with the seder plate, and glasses of wine and a place set for Elijah. 

When it began the old Sunday School stories came back to me.  

You see, Pharaoh, a wicked king, had a dream that a great leader was about to be born of the Israelites, his slaves, and lead the people out of captivity.  So Pharaoh commanded that all first born sons of Jewish families should be killed.   

One mother, named, Yocheved, saved her baby by putting him in a basket and floating him down the river to where Pharaoh’s daughter found him.  Then his big sister told the Pharaoh’s daughter that she knew someone who could take good care of the baby—so he was saved and raised by his own mother under the protection of Pharaoh’s daughter, who took him as her son and named him Moses. 

Let’s hear it for the big sister.

When Moses grew up he noticed how cruel the Egyptians were so he went to live with his own people, the Israelites. 

One day when he was out walking he saw a bush that was on fire but it didn’t burn up, and the Angel of the Lord appeared out of the flames and then God told Moses that he must save his people and lead them out of Egypt into Canaan, a land of milk and honey.

There’s a great song about this;“Go down Moses, way down in Egypt Land, Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go.”

Moses said, “Who, me?  I can’t do that,”  and God said, “Sure you can, I’ll help you.”  

It took some convincing, because Moses was not confident about his speaking skills so his brother Aaron went with him. 

Moses said. “Okay.” So he went to Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go.” 

Pharaoh said no.  God had showed Moses how to turn a staff into a snake and back again and  Pharaoh was impressed but his heart was hardened and he still said no so God sent the plagues. Locusts, blood, boils, drought, frogs, hail. The worst was that every first born son would die. 

God told the Israelites to make a sacrifice of a lamb and put the blood on their door frame, and the Angel of Death would pass over their house.  And that’s Passover.

Then Pharaoh said, “Okay, go,” and Moses and his people got up and left, taking only unleavened bread.  

 Pharaoh changed his mind and sent an army after them but God parted the Red Sea, the Israelites crossed in safety and then the water came back and drowned Pharaoh’s army. 

Then the people spent forty years in the desert, and Moses went up on a mountaintop and God gave him the Ten Commandments and eventually they got to the Jordan River.  

It’s an awesome story and it belongs to all of us.  For me it resonates with the American Revolution, the Civil War, the civil rights movement. It’s all about the quest for freedom and the rights of all people to be free.

And then I realized that Jesus was celebrating Passover at the Last Supper, when he told his friends, this is my body…do this in remembrance of me,” the beginning our own ritual of communion.

I was overwhelmed.

 Linda’s Mom said, “So, you gonna convert?”

Before I had an answer for her Linda’s father said, 

You don’t need to convert, or even join Jews for Jesus. You just want a wider view of the world and where you fit in it.

Well, Exactly.

So I’m not choosing between the two faiths of my family.  I’m clinging to the things that bring us together.

Let us rejoice together in the miracles of Rebirth and Renewal.

What are my grandchildren learning?  They have a menorah and a Christmas tree.

Molly said to Jessie, “I have a father who’s Jewish, right?”

“Right.”

“And my mother is…Manhattan-ish?”

Well, it’s a start.


All Nature Sings

 April 6th is the birthday of Charles Burchfeld, (1893-1967) watercolorist and personal favorite of mine.  Just as in the hymn my title comes from, he makes nature sing.  One thing I miss living in the city is the music of the crickets in late summer.
When I look at this painting, “Insect Chorus,”  it almost tickles my ears.

Here’s another favorite. I find everything about dandelions charming– their sunny yellow mop heads, their delicious greens, their name–Teeth of the Lion.  I love them despite–or maybe because of–their reputation as a weed.
     Many flowers lose their appeal when they go to seed but that’s when the dandelion comes into his glory.
     I’ve tried but I can’t capture those delicate little seed parasols in pen and ink. Mr. Burchfeld certainly did.

 Last week I wrote about green and my ambivalence toward lawns. I mean, I like a lawn but I have no interest in having one and I’m not sad that I live in the city where they’re cared for by someone else.
     Our home in Vermont was surrounded by a lovely rolling lawn.  It was pretty but my father insisted that it be perfect.  How can you enjoy something if all you see is what’s wrong with it?
     Dad abhorred the dandelion. That most enjoyable pleasure of summer, blowing the dainty wisps into the wind, was strictly forbidden. I think a few dots of yellow enhance the green but he said one little yellow head led to a multitude and soon all was lost. He declared war and we were all enlisted. Pulling up dandelions was everyone’s mission. 

There’s an art  to the task; you don’t just pull up the flower, yo have to take this wicked looking tool, especially designed to kill the dandelion, dig down beside the strong, deep root and pull it up whole.

 Years after that house was sold I went to church with Mom and Dad.  The preacher told this story;  

     There was a man who hated dandelions so much that he funded a study at Texas A&M to eradicate them.   After years of exhaustive research the scientists had to report that dandelions are indestructible and will always be with us.   

“We suggest you learn to love them.”  

Mom and I fell out of the pew laughing.

     There’s another hymn I love—and I put its latin translation, “Credit curas venti” in some of my etchings; It’s “Give to the Wind thy Fears.” 
     Whenever I sing it I picture taking a perfect globe of a dandelion  and blowing away the seeds.  That’s one of the forbidden pleasures of my youth.  
     But wait—that metaphor doesn’t work.  Those tiny little seeds will land and take root and grow and spread—not what we want our fears to do.  Instead, blow the dandelion and see the seeds as good
will; hopes, dreams, kind words—give them to the winds and watch them grow.

Somebody Else Loves Dandelions.

Somebody Else Loves Dandelions

  Last week my friend, Bobby, reminded me that dandelions provide food for our friends, the bees, especially early in the spring.

The bee; that tiny creature who works so hard and does so much that she’s the symbol of industry and productivity all over the world.

I’ve looked at a lot of bees this week, both photographs and drawings, and I can’t blame the artists who give them smily faces.  Close up, they’re pretty terrifying, like alien monsters. But form follows function and those big blank eyes, the six legs, the weird mouth and the fuzzy body are a perfect machine for making sweetness. 

Thank you, bees, and not just for the honey.

 Think of something you love to eat and ask if a bee had anything to do with it.  Apples, peaches, coffee, almonds, strawberries….CHOCOLATE. They  all come from plants that need pollinators and that would be the bees.

Wouldn’t you think we’d take good care of someone so important to our well-being?  We haven’t. The bees are in trouble. Climate change, loss of habitat, pesticides and a nasty virus are wiping them out.

Sometimes I just want to say, “What next?”  How can we not fall into despair?

Remember what Mr. Rogers said? 
”When a disaster happens, look for the helpers.” 

There are helpers. Beekeepers.  It used to be illegal to keep bees in the city because they were thought of as dangerous but in 2010, under Mayor Bloomberg, that ban was lifted.
Thanks, Mr. Mayor, for the Gates and the bees.
Now there are  200 registered beekeepers (and probably many unregistered) including The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and the United Nations, and there’s a New York City Beekeepers Association.

 

I’m inspired but raising bees on my small terrace is more that I can take on.Still there’s plenty to do.  
Here’s a list from the New York Bee Sanctuary of things everybody can do.

  1. Join BEE-SAFE and pledge to protect the bees on a piece of land you manage, your garden, the backyard of your company or your rooftop! We have partner towns, schools, corporations, and individuals. Everyone can join!
  2. Do not use any pesticides, fungicides or herbicides on plants or in your garden. Plants get contaminated and the product will likely reach the bees and kill them. Make sure the plants you buy are not pre-treated with neonics pesticides!
  3. Buy local & raw honey from your local beekeepers. Avoid honey sold in bulk or in the supermarket unless you are sure of its provenance and quality. Always best to buy on farmers market so you can meet your beekeeper and check with him his sustainable beekeeping practices.
  4. Plant your garden with native and bee friendly plants. They provide great sources of nectar and pollen (both food for the bees and butterflies). It’s important for bees, as it is for us, to have a diverse and regular food supply.
  5. Avoid planting lawns. Lawns are literally desert for insects and for wild plants because lawns usually never have plants beneficial to bees and are cut too often so plants never get to bloom. Instead, plant prairies!
  6. Do not weed your garden. Many plants like dandelion, for example, are an excellent source of food for bees. In early spring, those “weeds” are often the only source of food for beneficial insects. Lots of those weeds are often excellent food and medicine for us too!
  7. Even if you just have a small balcony you can install a little water basin for the bees to drink during the warm day of summer. Put a few stones and floating cork on the water so bees won’t drown!
  8. Stay connected to the Facebook page of New York Bee Sanctuary and our Instagram account so you can stay informed and sign regular petition to pressure our state and country to pass regulations to help the bees (like the ban of neonicotinoids)
  9. Educate yourself and your children about bees. Bees are not dangerous; they forage on a flower and don’t attack humans. By better understanding them we will learn to better respect them. There are 5 must-see documentaries about bees.
  10. If the buzz gets to you, learn how to become a beekeeper and install a hive in your garden or on your rooftop. It’s a powerful way to give honey bees a home and probably the best local honey you will ever get!

So, the next time you see a dandelion  all puffy and full of seeds, take a big breath and blow like it’s your birthday. Spread those beautiful seeds on the wind so they can go forth and feed the bees.

A Few Thoughts on Green

 

Saint Patrick’s Day and the wearing of the green has gone by but green is still on my mind.

Little glimpses of jade and chartreuse are popping up in my neighborhood. And I’m reminded of everything that green promises and provides. “Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises,” says Pedro de la Barca, but not everyone agrees.

The first time I saw Vermont in the summer I was stunned by the green of those hills. It was beautiful, but overwhelming.

 

When Georgia O’Keeffe was first married to Alfred Steiglitz they spent summers at his family home in Lake George.  She did some great work there, but she wasn’t inspired. “It’s so green,” she said and it wasn’t a compliment.  It was the open expanses of the Texas plains and the earth tones of New Mexico that really excited her.  And I think it was something beyond color; it was seeing the earth’s bones.  Greenery covers everything. Remember what I said in my blog post, A Letter to my Hips. In drawing class you’re trying to see the bones under the skin and muscle.  I think O’Keeffe wanted to see the earth’s bones,  just as she painted the beautiful bones she found in the desert. She was looking to strip away everything that prevented her from seeing the very basic forms that inspired her. She found the place that nurtured her in New Mexico and I found mine in New York City.

 An image that tugs at my heart every time I see it is the green of the late afternoon sun shining through leaves of grass.  This is poignant to me; it heralds the end of the day, the end of summer and missed opportunities.   It also awakens an uneasy feeling that I’m not living my life as I was meant to.  

.  My brother once asked me, “If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?”

And I said, “Right here.”

“No, really.”

“Yes, really.  This is where I want to live.”

“If you could live anywhere in the world?”

“Yeah.”

Since moving to New York City I have never wanted to live anywhere else but I was raised in a leafy suburb and then we moved to Vermont.  Living surrounded by grass and greenery felt like the right way. Was I depriving my children?

For a while Arthur and I dutifully looked at houses in the suburbs but we soon realized that all we asked about each town was, “How fast can we get into the city?”  We gave up the search and settled in the Village.  But I still had the nagging feeling that glowing blade of grass gave me.

O’Keeffe live in New York City for a while, and did some wonderful paintings of the tall buildings and bright lights but she didn’t love it like I do.  We each have to find our own place.

The main source of my unease was my mother. She never gave up trying to get me into a house with a lawn.  She had a lot of creative energy and, like Aunt Connie, she poured it into her home.“You love to draw houses,”she said, “don’t  you want one of you own?”  

I love houses, I dream about houses but I don’t want to own one with all the plumbing, roofing and lawn care involved.  The little house in my calendars changes her shutters every month-imagine doing that for real. I love gardens too, but it’s enough for me just to draw them.

Mom didn’t get it, but I didn’t get how she would play golf everyday if she could. 

Now she’s gone but I still talk with her.  I imagine really listening to her, and speaking so she hears me.  Then I look around my apartment and see all the things she left me-not only her collection of cast-iron Boston Terriers and her good china.  She taught me to make a homey home, to throw a party and invite my friends in, to cook, to clean up as I go along, a sense of order and tidiness.

This is a lot to put on a blade of grass.  A color.  But that’s what comes up, when I see that  place of grass, illuminated by the afternoon sun..