Sunday, November 29, 2020

Delight and Surprise

I've written little this year, not for lack of thought, but perhaps because there are so many threads that I've been thinking about. I wade through the tangle of ideas and realize that perhaps the most predominant is that this is a year of unexpected reinvention, some seemingly frivolous, but also significant ways. 

Suddenly we were largely confined to our homes and neighborhoods. My car feels unfamiliar when I get behind the wheel because most of my journeys are on foot. My auto pilot reactions still operate, but my trust in them has dwindled. I have often circled back to my house after departing to make sure I closed the garage door only to find that I have.  It is no longer a familiar ritual.

My initial challenges were figuring out how to get groceries delivered and what to do for an exercise routine with the gym closed.  There have been some byproducts of those challenges. We are eating meals at home with rare takeout on special occasions. That gives me greater control of my diet. No lunches out with friends, more planning about what I purchase.


Similarly, my workout routine has changed, but also gotten more consistent. When I roll out of bed and into my yoga pants, it is easier to think about a workout, whether it is a walk, an online class or my recumbent bike on those cold winter days. My husband got me an Apple watch and I find I like the routine that it encourages. I have nicknamed it “the little f***er” because it annoyingly tells me to stand up every hour. I dutifully jump up and do three laps around our kitchen and living room to earn my stand. As someone who can sit at my computer for hours at a time, engrossed in a genealogy project, I find that it actually helps my back to listen to this creature on my wrist.

Now, I am not an exercise junkie. Unlike my husband, I don’t bike the 34 mile roundtrip journey to our studio. I work out because I realize it affects my quality of life and I do a moderate amount each day. Much to my surprise the modifications to how I eat, consistent exercise  and the little f***er’s exhortations have resulted in a steady weight loss. I found myself pulling clothes out of my pile for Goodwill realizing that their fit had miraculously improved. Now many people have indicated the opposite result of the pandemic as they began to bake and do a bit of stress eating. For me, it has been a delightful side benefit.

Perhaps the greatest change has been the decision to let my hair go grey, well actually silver. Now I don’t know if this is a permanent decision or a pandemic based temporary exploration of identity. Every so often I used to ask Jeffrey, my hair stylist of 30+ years, if it would make me look older. “Yes,” he solemnly replied and that was the end of the conversation. Sometimes he would comment that he thought I might have a cool white streak in front like Susan Sontag as he noted the silver hiding beneath. I was curious about my hidden cool streak, but wasn't quite sure how to expose it. I was due for a visit to Jeffrey when the salons closed down.  By the time they re-opened, I was intrigued by the person who was emerging beneath the color. She looked kind of interesting and I wondered who this new person would be. I decided to let it grow through those awkward stages. Where did I have to go anyway?

Susan Weinberg-blogger

When I looked at a picture I had submitted months ago for an on-line conference presentation, it no longer looked like me. I took my first picture of me with silver grey hair and re-submitted it. Then I changed my Zoom picture. I was slowly stepping into this new identity. This new me. 

Billie Eilish

Oddly enough it didn’t make me feel older. Quite the opposite. I felt like a fifteen-year-old playing with her hair. I pulled out the pretty hair clips and hair ties that I used when my hair was long. I put it up on my head, pulled portions of it back and tried it with different earrings. I flashed back on times when that felt familiar, a time of playing with identity, deciding who I would be. Apparently I'm still deciding.


Just as the weather turned, my husband and I went out to a nearby sculpture garden to meet some friends from out of town. With wide paths it offered an easy way to gather in relative safety. I had used a clip to put my hair up with strands escaping around my face in my two- toned hairstyle. We sat spread out around a table at an outdoor cafĂ© when a woman approached and said, “I have to tell you I’ve been admiring your hair. I just love it. You're really rocking that  Billie Eilish look (an 18-year old singer-songwriter). “


I laughed in amusement at my new-found hipness, as I welcomed this new me with both delight and surprise.


Sunday, November 8, 2020

Absence and Presence: A New Appreciation

In these times of COVID, my husband and I have carved out a two-mile walk through nearby streets that has become part of our routine as we avoid the gym. It has become a well-worn path and over time I have identified landmarks that I check off mentally as we pass. I carry my phone and take pictures of our sightings of the albino squirrel and the reflections of golden leaves on water that conjure images of Klimt paintings. My favorite images warrant many photos, capturing them in a different light or a new angle. I have a new appreciation of Monet's studies of haystacks as the light changes.

With our spate of warm weather, I’ve been walking that route frequently, a chance to savor the sun’s warmth before we descend into winter. One of my favorite landmarks has been two trees juxtaposed that I named the sentinels. 

One was half dead with a hollow where once branches emerged. It wore a necklace of growths, perhaps fungal, but had an odd beauty in its irregularity that had first attracted my attention. I first discovered it in the spring and rediscovered it many times as the light and the seasonal changes drew my attention again and again. I have almost 20 images of it on my camera roll. Along the way I attempted a painting of it.

This week I set out on my route and suddenly stopped short when I approached the sentinels, those stalwart trees that stood guard. Did I have the right spot? Something was not right. Then it hit me like a gut punch. Where my necklaced tree had once stood in dialogue with its companion, there now was a stump. I was surprised to realize that what I was feeling was grief. Something was not right with the world, my world.

 It occurs to me that absence and presence is a theme that keeps knocking on my door. I first began to paint it when my mother passed away. Each morning she would create collages at the kitchen table. After her death I took a photo of her chair with its well-worn cushions and her sweater hanging over a neighboring chair as if she were going to return shortly. And I painted it. This time the idea of absence and presence had begun to enter my awareness as I realized how present she felt in her absence.

Every ten years the Minneapolis Institute of Art does the Foot in the Door show where artists are invited to enter an artwork with dimensions of one foot by one foot. Ten years ago, I waited in a long line streaming out the door during the winter to submit my entry.  I remember finally gaining entrance and slowly winding my way up the stairs. This year it was much simpler as a virtual show. The piece I entered was yet another one on absence and presence. It was part of an environmental series on the many ways our environment is changing. Remember when you used to capture fireflies in a jar as a child? They’d come out at night and the sky would be filled with them. This piece was dedicated to those fireflies that I now seldom see. Also, in the image is an elm tree that we had to take down this year because of Dutch Elm disease. I had seldom noticed it until it received its death sentence. My appreciation grew as I realized how it held our yard in an embrace, curving around the outskirts, defining its contours, once again in dialogue with its companions. It now feels quite barren in its absence.


I’ve been thinking a lot about absence and presence this week as our 46th president was selected. For much of my life I’ve taken democracy for granted. I failed to appreciate how it held our lives in its embrace, defining the contours of a world which we assumed was the norm, until it wasn’t. The past four years I have learned a lot about that democracy I never much noticed until it eroded. I think we all have.  Absence and presence. It relates to many things, people, insects, trees, even democracy. We take many things for granted, only deeply appreciating them in their absence. Sometimes we don’t get a second chance. Often we miss something in dialogue with something else. I always thought of my sentinel in conversation with its neighboring tree. When I saw the neighboring tree without its companion, that was the moment it struck me that something was missing. We too exist in conversation with each other. We are not isolated beings. We are all sentinels of our democracy, partnered with each other. This week I have felt particularly emotional because it is the beginning of a national conversation. I am not the only one who took democracy for granted and I am not the only one who reached out to grab onto it and hold on tight.