Nine lives ago, I got an email from a nice guy named Mark. Mark read my blog. (This was around 2006.*) We didn’t know each other; he just stumbled upon PaperGirl and liked it, so he told me. I said, “Thanks!” and so began a many years-long friendship with Mark and, by extension, his awesome wife Netta. Mark and Netta live in Florida and have three adult kids.
Over nine years, I’d say I’ve gotten fifteen? twenty? emails from Mark and I’ve sent about as many. We’re not prolific pen pals. But we’re pals. Real pals. It’s just the way it is. Mark and Netta send me a cookie-fudge-nut tray every Christmas. Mark hired me to write a poem for his daughter years back and one for Netta this summer. I’m sending them a bundle of Small Wonders fabric as soon as I get home and stay home for five seconds. They sent a $100 gift card when I moved to D.C; I told Mark I bought a flower vase, a can opener, and dishtowels, all things I needed. I’ve sent a number of gushing thank-you cards to these people. The relationship I have with them is like a neat star that appears in the sky every few months. Never met ’em.
I met ’em last night.
Mark and Netta live in Florida, remember? Well, I announced I’d be in Maitland and who do you think sent me an email saying they weren’t too far from me and could we meet for dinner? My pen pal!
Saturday night, I met my friends at a cute Italian restaurant in Maitland. Mark got a bowl of fettuccine alfredo big enough to have a zip code; Netta and I realized we were both the middle daughter of three. I ordered the snapper special; Mark spoke about the qualities of a successful marriage. Our waiter was over-attendant; I cried about different stuff. I told them about my dad; they asked the right questions. I listened to their stories about love and family, how they’ve done it and how they might do it differently, or the same, if they had the chance to do it again. It wasn’t “like we were old friends.” We are old friends.
Mark, Netta, thank you. Again. For everything! Are you kidding me?? You send me fudge-nut trays and you let me blow my nose on a napkin within thirty minutes of meeting each other face-to-face! The counsel, the kindness… It’s good to know good people.
Here’s to the next nine years, you two. Merry Christmas.
*That’s right: the ol’ PG is almost nine years old, if you count a couple years in there when I had to go dark. There’s a bit about that here.
My heart feels like it’s in a jacuzzi. Being back in Chicago is a gift. I turn a corner and look at something so banal as the American Apparel store or the conveniently-placed mailbox on the corner of Polk and Dearborn and I beam. Thankfully, it’s scarf weather, so I can beam into my scarf and not scare anyone.
As I walked up State St. the other day — State St. in all its bunting and festooned glory — I thought how remarkable it was that no one around me knew how happy I was just to be there. No way could anyone walking behind me or crossing the street with me know that I was so happy to be back in this city that my heart was singing, even as I dodged a weird/large puddle by the library? But we don’t know about anyone who walks near us, do we? (I wrote up a similar thought in regards to bathrooms and disabilities, but this is different.) We all have stories and circumstances, but we can never know all the people so we can’t know all the stories. Good or bad, when significant things happen to us, we still have to like, walk to the bank. We still have to go to work. We gotta eat something. But where did the person next to you come from? And where are they going?
That man’s mother died last night. That other man, he’s on his way to court to give a deposition — and he’s debating whether or not to lie. That woman on your left is headed to her first job as a dominatrix. The woman on your right just got elected to the board. That guy, he was diagnosed yesterday. The woman up ahead was going to break up with her boyfriend at lunch but couldn’t do it. The man across the street, crossing to your side, lost his wallet twenty minutes ago. The woman nearby him is worrying herself to death over her prodigal son.
I wanted to grab someone and say: “Hi! I was walking next to you but there was no way for you to know how happy I am to be in Chicago and I want to tell you because you should know. You should know that just walking near you, just being under the Chicago sky — it’s wonderful! It’s a wonderful life! Don’t take it for granted, don’t forget: Chicago is the best city in the world. We have a lot of issues. But we can make it. We’re gonna make it. We’re gonna work together and we’re gonna make it. Okay?”
I suspect the person would run away from me as fast as possible. And if they did, no big deal. I’d just grab the next guy or the next guy, until I found someone who was ready to rap with me for the rest of the afternoon about how there is no place like home and there is no home like Chicago. Not for me and not for the person rapping with me. Maybe we would sit on the bench in front of the old school barbershop-and-cigar shop on Dearborn. I love to walk past that place but I’ve never been in. It’s not that cold, yet; we could share my scarf.
In the course of getting my undergrad degree, I took a class in Indian Buddhism. A lot of undergrads at Iowa did because it sounded cool and fulfilled the Eastern Studies requirement. I’ve forgotten the impassioned notes I scribbled next to passages in the textbook that summer, but I remember a little about Buddha’s enlightenment. Enlightenment is the Western translation of bodhi, which means “awakening.” Wikipedia says what the we understand enlightenment to be is “sudden insight into transcendental truth.”
I always imagined Buddha becoming enlightened in this searing, brilliant, sunshine-y moment, when he suddenly saw the world for what it is: temporal, finite, and indescribably beautiful. He saw that every single one of us is born and every single one of us must die, and every single one of us is important, and we hurt ourselves over and over and over but we don’t have to. I imagined him seeing the brilliance of roses and commuter trains and coffee cups and bad haircuts. Basically, it was all really intense and beautiful and made him the Buddha.
Being back in Chicago after all this time, after thousands and thousands of miles, I swear I know at least 1% of the enlightenment experience.
Because I walked out into the alley behind my building this morning and the oil on the cement, the rumbling el overhead and the pigeons flapping away as it came, the smell of fresh dough coming from Lou Malnati’s, the crisp pre-snow air, the Columbia kids walking to class, the beep of the parking garage security bar going up across the street, the skyscrapers to the north, painted there just for me, all that metal and glass and the whole city was there, right there, and I was no longer in exile. I saw Chicago, my real home, as it really is: alive, temporal, suffering, perfect. I never knew pigeons could vibrate.
Words can’t express my joy. God, I missed you so much. I tried to do that thing where if you tell a lie long enough it becomes true. But my heart was buried in that alley the whole time I was gone and I had just enough honesty left to come back and scrape it out. Telling the truth should be so easy — but we cover it up, roll trucks over it, let snow fall on it, bury it. For what? Appearances? Fear? Impatience, I think, in my case.
Surely, there’s something better than what I’m doing now, I said to myself last year. Surely, I thought, there’s something else to see than this. Surely, if I don’t put down roots, I won’t grow moss. If I don’t admit I love this place so much it feels like part of my body, if I lose it, or if it rejects me, it won’t hurt as much. That’s what I said when I thrashed and burned and left Chicago. But I’m home, now.
The definition of suffering in Buddhism is “being in one place and wishing you were someplace else.” For one second — and for the first time in a long time — I couldn’t possibly tell you what suffering feels like because there is nowhere, nowhere on Earth I’d rather be than here.
Six days — six days — from right now, I’ll be back in Chicago. It has been such a long, long, long, long and incredible trip. God, I’ve loved living in Washington, DC. It carried me so far and I loved where we went. My darling, a short list of what I’ll miss the most.
– The scent of my tenth-floor apartment: fresh paint, trees, French perfume, clean air.
– The drive to Ronald Reagan National Airport from my building. The taxi takes me the length of Rock Creek Parkway and it’s like driving through the countryside, right there in the city.
– The macaroons of consequence at Firehook Bakery. Baseball-sized, dipped in dark chocolate. With a cup of black coffee, my favorite breakfast.
– How when you turn a corner or approach a park, another bronze or marble memorial greets you and you appreciate the artists who carved the art, the humans who carved the country, and time that carves the rest.
– Mr. Lumbibi, my favorite of the Kennedy Warren front desk staff. He always asks me where I’m off to when he sees me lugging suitcases. John’s usually on the night shift.
– The view of the Klingle Valley outside my window. Cue tears. That’s one’s gonna hurt.
– The opportunity to get closer to Elle, to Carissa, to Carla, the gorgeous girls I met at the DC Modern Quilt Guild and never spent enough time with while I was here.
– The National Gallery.
– Le Diplomat, the perfect French Bistro: I went on three different dates there and the Lyonnaise salad is the best I’ve ever had, especially with a glass (fine: two) of Charles Hiedsieck Brut Reserve NV.
– The Mid-Atlantic weather. I am going back to Chicago at the worst time possible, weather-wise. Great, Fons. Very nice.
– Dropping my mail through the mail chute. It goes all the way to the lobby! I love that!
– Telling people, “I live in Washington, D.C.” It always sounded amazing. And it was.
Thank you for taking a job with a company who is up front about the fact that what you do might kill you. Thank you for rolling those dice. Thank you for actually doing what I say I would “totally do” if I got drafted. Thank you for having the courage to not wait to get drafted.
Thanks for saving my life, my sisters’ lives, the lives of all the women in my quilt guild, my mother, the niece I hope to have someday. Thank you for saving my friend Heather’s life, my friend Bari’s life, my Aunt Leesa’s life. Thank you for saving the plot where my paternal grandmother is buried, the plot where my maternal grandmother is buried, the lives of my friend Annie’s daughters and the lives of all three of my beautiful female cousins. Thank you for all those lives and all the millions of other girls’ lives you protected or protect now or will protect when you get out of basic.
Thank you, Female Veteran, for doing the hard part. There are times — no one can honestly deny it — the mud on your boots is muddier than the mud on the boots of the guy in front of you because you’re a girl and it’s different for you, different because some things really are different and different because they tell you they are, even when they aren’t. All of us out here, all us girls, we get it. Thank you for doing it for us, for not just matching the guy in front of you but for exhausting yourself further to prove our worth. I promise you, I am trying in my own ways. But I can’t bounce a quarter off my bed, so you win.
We are so distracted. We are inside a box of Cheez-Its watching Say Yes To the Dress! — but if I start listing all the things I’m ashamed of, you’ll miss some kind of checkpoint thing and get in trouble and that is the opposite of what I want for you right now. Thank you for fighting for us anyway, even if we’re inside a box of Cheez-Its.
Happy Veteran’s Day, Female Veteran. I really love this country, even so. And we don’t have it, I don’t have it, without every single one of you.
All of my life, I have never understood nor enjoyed Halloween. I just didn’t get it. Why would anyone cover themselves in sticky fake blood and go out in cold weather to do jello shots? What can be accomplished by being a trollopy milk maid in public in late October? I’ve never seen the zombie zeitgeist as some sort of catharsis for a society living in fear and isolation; I see it as creepy and tacky, not to mention disorienting, especially when you see a pack of zombies doing jello shots or doing a 5k run or both.
But I figured out the appeal last night! It’s not that you have to be scary or uncomfortable on Halloween; you don’t have to dwell on the undead or be some bizarre, modern version of an ancient pagan. It’s that on Halloween, you can be someone else. You can take the briefest break from being you, and this is a great gift. Do you know how exasperating it is to be me? Sure, because you know how exhausting it is to be you. We’re all living, breathing (beautiful) disasters. Who wouldn’t want to jump out of your disaster and into another one once a year?
I’ve mentioned my fancy-schmancy home in DC — the Kennedy Warren building on Connecticut Avenue — has a beautiful bar inside the building. It’s all dark wood and chrome with lots of plush velvet chairs and couches, a grand piano. A jazz trio plays in the evening. Politicians hang out there, journalists hang out there. Well, there was a Halloween do last night and I went down to see what was what. Of course I needed to wear a costume, so I put on the pair of funny glasses I happen to have and attached to my necklace a bow-tie I happen to have. I went and put on black trousers, a vest, my best Prada patent leather shoes with the steel heel (haaaaay!) and my black trench coat. Suddenly…I was not me!
I had so much fun last night. I met many cool people and several came up to my place for a nightcap. It was a wonderful Halloween and I have made peace with the holiday as of now. Incredibly, I’m already looking forward to next year. How about that.
*To Hannah, the incredible fan who sent me a carton of candy pumpkins… Hannah, you are a treasure of a human being. Thank you. I ate handfuls of them when they arrived. Pumpkins from heaven.
I’ve been traveling so much lately — home in DC this evening after a full week in Chicago — chances are good there are new readers to PaperGirl. I encourage people I meet at events or classes to visit and read this blog, but I still see fear in their hearts when I tell them PaperGirl isn’t about one thing but “just sort of about my life.” A gluten-free baking tutorial blog is an easier sell but what can I do? Surely some people were curious enough to visit and it seems like a good opportunity to take a moment and explain the monkey. I haven’t posted a picture of or given an update on Pendennis in some time; let’s get everyone caught up.
Some adults have an ironic connection to a childhood toy or a juvenile object and it can be cute or it can be weird. Either way, these peoples’ friends are actually happy when there’s a “thing” because it makes that person really easy to shop for. “I have no idea what to get Nancy for Christmas” is not a sentence Nancy’s friends will ever have to say because Nancy likes deer.
I don’t have a “thing” for sock monkeys; I have a thing for my sock monkey. His name is Pendennis and no, I do not sleep with him or cry hot, hot tears into his soft body. He does not come on trips with me. I haven’t had him since I was three and I do not suck on his tail. My high school art teacher made him for me when I was her teacher’s aide and Pendennis has simply been with me ever since, not because I need a stuffed animal to cope with life* but because I love him. My love is akin to the love I have for a special painting or a treasured photograph, except that I can cry hot, hot tears into his soft body. I love the monkey like I love my favorite sweater or my favorite snack. He is a comfort and we all need more of that. He went to New York. He came to DC. He’s my little guy.
But fondness springs eternal for Pendennis not just because he’s familiar: Pendennis is hilarious. I laugh out loud when I see him poking out from under a chair or twisted up like a pretzel under a pillow (see above.) I’ve been Pendennis’s personal photographer for years because I have to try and capture the joy he brings to me when I discover him in his natural habitat. This way, when I’m old and Pendennis has been chewed up by a cat, I can look at the pictures on my hologram phone and feel happy again. What’s crucial for readers to know is that I never, ever pose Pendennis. When I take a picture of him, you can be sure I am shooting what I discovered, not anything I created. The monkey needs no stylist, no art director; I simply point and shoot.
That’s the scoop on the PaperGirl mascot. And I’m glad you’re here.
As usual, doing something important fast had consequences. Two Facebook fans, one born in Detroit and one who now lives in the suburbs, commented that Detroit has many good things going for it and should not be considered a lost cause. They are absolutely right: there are many positive things to say about Detroit and the people there are clearly not all addicted to drugs, indigent, or looking to break into your car. I apologize to the ladies and indeed, mean no offense by my commentary. It is fair to note, however, that the lady born there did not stay and the lady in the suburbs does not live in the city.
Before I begin this rather in-depth post, keep in mind that I am not an investigative reporter; I have no press credentials. I am but a naturally curious person who went to Detroit and has a blog. If you want source material for the stats I give and a list of the numerous articles I’ve been reading about Detroit — those showing reasons/data for growth and those denying any such thing — email me and I’ll share that immediately. Also, there’s no way in a PaperGirl post to cover the vast Detroit Thing. Don’t read this like it’s the news and don’t stop here if you have any interest in the topic. There’s a whole lot more, good and less good, about Detroit, MI.
Okay. The Census Bureau counted 1.84 million people in Detroit in 1950. In 2010, there were under 714,000.That’s a 60% decline in 60 years. Estimates from the Bureau put population at 700,000, so it’s still dropping. Big changes in the design of the US auto industry began all this, though it’s more complicated than that. But Detroit was Motor City, making basically All The Cars for a long time. Making All The Cars made Detroit the fourth largest city in the country during that 1950-ish period. (BTW: Motown music was born in Detroit; “Mo” = motor, “Town” = Detroit.) As the 60s and 70s came along, you had gas crises, racial unrest, foreign auto makers getting toeholds in the market, and labor getting shifted overseas to improve the bottom line.
Then the recession happened in the 80s. But according to the police officer I met and talked to for a good while, it was in the 90s things went from bad to nightmarish for the city he was born and raised in. Casinos were allowed to be built and helped only the corrupt officials who let them in; more addiction and poverty followed the casino construction. Perhaps sadder still is that school district segregation had a huge part to play in the KO punch of the 90s: neighborhoods were redlined, people moved out for better school districts. This was a racially- and socioeconomically-driven tide. The more people who left, the fewer companies wanted to invest in the city. The fewer investors, the fewer jobs, etc., etc. On the heels of the 90s, you get the 2000s: Iraq, financial crisis, etc. Oh, Detroit. Oh, honey.
By 2013, the city had to file for bankruptcy, a move that marked the largest municipal bankruptcy case in our nation’s history. Detroit was $18 billion in debt. Crooked officials, a problem almost too big to solve, and a lack of people to take a whack at it created that debt. Now, because the bankruptcy happened, Detroit actually is in better shape than it was: bankruptcy is designed to help a person — or an entire city — get right. It’s way better to pay your debts, though.
I’ve read for a couple years now that Detroit is growing and it’s getting “really cool,” which for a lifestyle magazine means that white hipsters are moving there. A one-page feature in, say, Chicago Magazine, picturing a guy with a mustache who has a food truck in Detroit is enough to make a lot of folks relax and think Superman saved the day. Superman does not run a food truck, though. This hype about Detroit becoming the next Brooklyn isn’t the case just yet. Detroit deliverance, from what I am understanding and from what I saw myself, is going to take years of deep thinking, actual doing, and leadership from people who are not stealing from the mouths of hungry Detroit-born babies.
Because when you have a small number of people living in a big city, you don’t have enough people paying taxes to cover the costs of living in a big city. Snow plowing, trash removal, street lights, public transit, etc.: these things require tax money. But if no one lives there to pay those taxes and no one who does live there can afford to pay those taxes, snow stays. Trash stays a long time. Lights literally go out. And no one wants to move into that city because the property taxes are insanely high. Huh? Yes, because the city is desperate for money. So the services are terrible and they cost a fortune.
There are gorgeous houses in downtown Detroit and just outside of it. I looked at many of them and part of my brain was freaking out, considering the possibilities. I could get a Victorian mansion for 50k or so. But most of the houses in these areas are in ruins. My ideal fixer-upper has been sitting empty since 2008. Animals live there. And pretend for a minute that I don’t work from home: if I moved to Detroit, into a “wait for it” Barbie dream house, where would I work? There are jobs in Detroit but many are in the suburbs, so I’d need a car. Not a big deal, except that car theft is so high in Detroit auto insurance premiums are the highest in the nation, hitting as high as $5000 a year.
There are 70,000 abandoned buildings in Detroit and 66,000 vacant lots. Forty-percent or more of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. In 2013, the violent crime rate in Detroit was the highest in the nation and five times higher than the national average. Roughly 40% of the street lights don’t work. These statistics go on and on. So I can’t move to Detroit right now. Not as a single woman. Not as a commuter who has to fly and out of my home city several times a month. Not as an Extreme Home Makeover story, not yet.
Look, I don’t wrap this up, I’ll be up all night and you’ll decide to read the rest of this later and likely forget to because it’s depressing to read about something once lively and energetic going on life support. As my Facebook friends pointed out, this is not the whole story of Detroit and it would take a post twice as long as this and twice as long again to detail one iota of the rich history and pride Detroitians (?) have and should have in their town.
I won’t end with some bromide about how I know Detroit will rise from the ashes, or that I hope it will. Everyone hopes that. I don’t have any conclusions or predictions. I saw Detroit and Detroit messed with me. That’s all I can say, except this one other thing: we actually witnessed a man actually breaking into a house. Two minutes after that, we saw a house gutted by fire. Two minutes after that, I saw a prostitute walk toward a man in a car at a gas station. It was all too much. The decay was killing me. I began to cry.
“Don’t cry,” said my friend. He had been most silent most of the drive, too. “It’s also beautiful,” he said. I was shocked. How could he say such a thing? “It’s hard to see, I know. It’s hard to look at all this and see how death has beauty, but you have to try. It’s part of life. Death is part of life.”
In a few days, it will be the sixteenth anniversary of the death of Jeremiah. Every August, as the end of the month begins to peek up over the fence, I think about my friend Jeremiah and how he died, when he died, and where he died. I never think about why he died because there is no answer to that question, just the sound of a small rock being dropped into a well. The best thing to do is to think about Jeremiah when he was alive, okay. But his untimely death is part of him; its fact throws all that he was and everything he did into relief.
It’s easy to mythologize people after they’re gone: the mean old grandpa ends up not being so much of a jerk, the neighbor wasn’t really that annoying, etc. But Jeremiah was — truly — kind of a god. He grew up in Winterset, IA, but that made no sense. This boy was a prince from a far-off land. In our circle of friends in high school, he was more than the Alpha; he was the Omega, too. This was the mid-1990s and Jeremiah looked like he was in the coolest band that didn’t exist yet on MTV’s Alternative Nation. He was wicked smart, loved to read, and it’s possible he invented the devilish grin. I was actually in 8th grade when he was a senior in my sister Hannah’s class; those two, plus James, my sister’s boyfriend, were the best of friends and that meant Jeremiah was at our house a lot with the rest of the gang. That he paid any attention to me at all blew me away. Jeremiah’s attention was sunshine.
We all ended up in Iowa City for college. Hannah, James, Jeremiah, and our friends Sarah and Ryan all lived in a house together off campus. I didn’t live in the house but I might as well have. We were thick as thieves. Jeremiah was dating achingly pretty, whip-smart Sara Beth. He was going to go to France the next year to study. There were amazing parties. There was so. Much. Laughing. And Jeremiah bought a motorcycle because that’s the sort of thing Jeremiah did.
He crashed it not more than a few blocks from the house. Sarah (housemate) was on the back of the bike and was thrown, but survived with minor injuries. Jeremiah splashed into the street. His head slammed into a parked car. While waiting for the ambulance, my sister arrived and she held him. She’s only told me about those agonizing minutes with him once. Exactly once, and now it’s been sixteen years. So.
James, Hannah, and I were at the hospital all night. Jeremiah’s mother and father made the 3-hour drive from Winterset to Iowa City in a little over an hour. Jeremiah was dying. His brain was swelling, wouldn’t stop. I saw the doctor come out and tell his mother there was nothing they could do and the sounds that came from inside that woman were indescribable. We got to go in and say goodbye. He was all wrapped up in gauze. Everything had gone inside out. All color had drained from every galaxy. Nothing could ever, ever be good again. This was not happening. Not happening.
Nothing about Jeremiah dying was good. It’s not a situation where you say, “Oh, well, you know, it was really lousy at the time, but it turned out okay because…” Nope, not this one, and I suggest you do not suggest it — not to me, not to my family, not to his. The world is missing a Christmas light. That beautiful string of Christmas lights on the tree, right there in the center of all that pine is a dark patch and you can never, ever get light there again. You can still have a good holiday. There will still be presents and good food and family. But you’ll look over — sometimes even by accident — and you’ll see that dark spot and feel sad. Because it is sad. It’s the saddest thing in the whole, whole, whole wide world.
A major selling point for my apartment here in the Kennedy Warren building was its proximity to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, otherwise known as “the zoo.” The sweet leasing agent who showed me around the place said, “So the zoo’s your next door neighbor, which is coo. If the wind is right, you can hear the zebras.” She barely got the word “zebras” out before I said those three thrilling/terrifying words:
“I’ll take it.”
And the zoo really is immediately next door. There is no high-rise, no cluster of homes to the east because the zoo is there. I have been through the zoo many times and still haven’t seen all the animals; pandas are apparently agoraphobic, the reptile house is always closed, and sea lions are lazy, I guess. When I do catch an animal out at meal time (zebras eat a lot of hay) it’s thrilling; like any other sensitive person, however, it bothers me to see a wild animal behind glass. I’m still not sure how I feel about it all, especially because of what happened the other day. What happened the other day is that I heard a lion roar. And roar. And roar.
Have you ever heard a lion roar? A real-life lion less than 200 feet away? I’m sure National Geographic specials viewed in HD with movie theater-grade sound does a decent job of it, but it ain’t the same. The duration and the start of a real lion’s roar might follow the MGM lion’s script, but what a digital lion can never create is the deep, vibrate-your-chest, subwoofer bass at the bottom of the roar and it’s not coming from speakers. It’s coming from that animal, right over there. Think breath. Think chest cavity. Think communication across miles.
If someone asked you to tell them what you know about lions, without question you’d say that the lion is “the king of the jungle.” When you hear a big, big lion roar, those words will actually become true for you. The lion is the king of the jungle without question. Nothing can do what that thing does. Nothing sounds like that. There’s nothing as strong, nothing as beautiful, and nothing as terrifying, either — that sound is designed to make you run.
The National Archives here in Washington was first on my list of Next Museums To Visit, but having Claus here, a German with an interest in American politics, made it happen sooner than it probably would have. After all, I have emails to answer and everyone knows emails are more important than the Bill of Rights. So yesterday we took the train down to Penn Quarter and walked about 20 paces to the Archives building.
In case you’re not aware, there is no entry fee for most of the museums in D.C., thanks to federal funding. The museums are ours, you might say, and you can get away with saying that with more than a touch of pride because it is a remarkable thing to be able to open the doors to a building, walk up a short set of stairs, and go into a rotunda where the documents upon which your country was designed are waiting for you. Inside the Archives, in a single room, the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence — all originals, mind you — are on display. Inside bulletproof cases filled with inert argon gas, these papers cease to be .jpg files online or images in your son’s American History textbook. They become living things.
I’m a crier anyway, but I cried when I walked into the rotunda. These weren’t sobs; I wasn’t freaking out or hyperventilating. But I had to blink a lot to keep warm tears in. The U.S. is a different country from the one the founding fathers had in mind — by a lot, no matter what political camp you’re in — but regardless, these are words that men wrote to assert their independence from oppression and their vision for something way better than that. We’re here because of these sheets of paper and everything (oh, everything, everything) that has come after.
When you have a visitor to your town or city, you see the place through new eyes. When you have a visitor to your country — especially when you’re with them in the capitol city — you see the place with new eyes and, at the risk of sounding super gross, a new heart.
Yesterday the FedEx man brought me a new sewing machine!
Oh, BabyLock. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways: My two (2) Melody machines, my Symphony, my Tiara, and now my Lyric. This post would’ve come yesterday but I had to check with the BabyLock peeps to make sure I could let the cat/machine out of the bag. This this is hot off the truck! I dropped everything and set her up immediately, and I have been sewing on it for basically 24 hours straight. She’s a real beauty, guys. Friendly, intuitive, a great machine for beginners, for taking to classes, and for petting in general. Rides like it’s on rails. Smooth like a chocolate shake. I could go on.
And while we’re on the subject, let me tell you something about BabyLock real quick. Yes, I do promotional work for the company but I do that work precisely because of what I’m about to say, so you needn’t feel like this is some advertorial. It’s not.
When I pitched Quilty, the project was green-lighted but it wasn’t funded. The parent company who gave me the initial “yes,” told me that if we could get sponsors, we could do the show. No sponsors, no Quilty. And let me tell you: just because I was Marianne Fons’s kid didn’t mean I had it easy. Working with the ad seller for the media company, we got rejections. A bunch of them. I was an unknown quantity. Revenue streams for online video were still being understood/explored at the time (this was 2010) and besides: everyone with a project wants sponsors. Most of these companies’ budgets are tapped out before they finish their spreadsheets every quarter.
BabyLock believed in Quilty. By extension, they believed in me. I remember pitching the idea to them at Fall Quilt Market ’10. I was so scared during my spiel I think I actually stuttered once. The two women who were subjected to my pitch were intimidating and very pretty. These days they’re two kindred spirits in my life — really — and they’re still at the company, still believing in me. Most of the people who work at Tacony (BabyLock’s parent company) have been with the company for decades. My friend Pam? Thirty years with BabyLock. This says a lot about BabyLock.
So yeah, the pretty ladies took a chance on Fons 2.0 and that would be reason enough to be loyal to them but then there’s the little matter of the sewing machines being actually, truly, genuinely fantastic. The embroidery machines are like, the best in the biz, but full disclosure: I’m not an embroiderer (say that word out loud) so I don’t play around much on them. I don’t have to. It’s all good stuff, whatever your stitch may be.
I’ve got two quilt tops going. I like them both equally, so I just keep switching back and forth between them. If I had enough room in my apartment, I’d leave my Symphony up on one table and my new Lyric would be on another table. A girl can dream.
Slowly, steadily, I am becoming aware that I can love a city other than Chicago and that my love can go deep. If you’d asked me a year and a few months ago if this were possible, I would have been almost angry that you would ask that. When you love something a lot it feels like you have ownership of it and as ridiculous as it is, for over thirteen years Chicago was mine. To suggest I could love another city even half as much was to take something away from me. Like a toddler with a plushy Mies van der Rohe skyscraper, I did not want to give. But I’m now welcoming this new understanding.
The understanding has opened doors in my head but the understanding has also been the crowbar that opened those doors in my head, so that’s weird. Look, let me stay out of the metaphysical for now and just say that Washington is every bit as fabulous as Chicago — and in some regards (don’t shoot) it is, in fact, more fabulous. Let me give you a few concrete examples.
1. There are murals everywhere here. Everywhere. Beautiful murals on the sides of buildings, some big, some huge. They’re all thoughtfully designed whether they’re sweet, thought-provoking, representational, abstract, art-for-art-sake-y. As a person who likes urban art of the brick wall kind, I am pleased. Chicago is mural impoverished by comparison.
2. There’s more music on the streets. Jazz combos, guitarists, saxophone players. Back in Chicago you have the drum boys on Michigan Avenue, the dudes who play in the tunnels at O’Hare, and there’s always something going on on the Jackson train platform. But today I saw a man at the Metro Center train stop playin’ a damn tuba! He was part of a killer trio: him, a guy on sax, and a kid on a drum kit playing so good and so into the jam, people were pulling out their phones to film him. I’ve never seen a tuba player in Chicago. And if you don’t like tubas, in Washington you can probably just get off one train stop up and you can enjoy a different concert.
3. Vegetation. It’s the Potomac. It’s the Anacostia. It’s the mid-Atlantic climate. The water and the air and the soil combine to make so much green here. Valleys, parks, thickets of trees, sun-dappled groves — it’s all here. Whenever I get to take a taxi drive instead of the train, I gape as we go through the outer neighborhoods. Of course there are trees in Chicago but Washington… If Chicago were a man’s head, it would have a crew cut. Washington would be a Beatle. In terms of green. The difference. The hair analogy.
4. The National Cathedral, the George Washington Monument, the Naval Observatory and everything else beautiful and monumental.
As I’ve said before, Washington has gotten into my heart. There are reasons and there are reasons.
My flight from Kansas City to Washington yesterday was remarkable, as in, “I am compelled to remark” on my flight. If only I had a blog! Hey, wait a minute…
Approximately 96% of the people on the KC –> DCA Southwest flight were police officers headed to National Police Week in Washington. I sat next to a chaplain, behind a cop, and to the right of an undercover guy (more on him in a second.) If they hadn’t all been in such a good mood, I would’ve been nervous. There’s nothing like a planeful of cops to make you second-guess your record. That parking ticket in ’99. I didn’t pay it. I didn’t pay!! Don’t take me away, officers! I’m a good citizen, I swear!
It was an unofficial party plane, man. People were calling to each other across the aisle with questions like, “Are you guys staying downtown or in Arlington?” and “Is Rick coming or not? No? What a [bleep]!” Our plane probably sounded a lot like — and I say this with love — a tour bus leaving that very hour from, say, Little Rock with a group of middle school students on their class trip to Washington, DC. It was all excitement, anticipation, and fun. It got more fun when the stewardesses started beverage service, if you know what I mean.
President Kennedy signed into law a remembrance day on May 15th for servicemen and servicewomen who have died in the line of duty. That was in ’62; the first National Police Week began in ’82. There are activities and memorial events held in the city during this time; more than 40k police come to Washington to participate each year. The cops and service-people on my flight were, not surprisingly, mostly Kansas City-based and would represent their state during these events.
I don’t know that I’ve ever met a more congenial, raucous person than the undercover guy sitting near me. Physically he was a tank. If I took a running leap and body-slammed him (I would never do this nor recommend that anyone do this) I would bounce off with a “ping!” and be dead. He was covered in tattoos and had a goatee. He was using chewing tobacco, too, which I had never seen someone do on a plane. When my purse fell into the aisle, he picked it up for me. When he saw a baby board with her mama, he said, “Here comes trouble!” He talked to everyone in a six-seat radius and everyone was entertained — even the chaplain, who could’ve done without the profane words the guy wove (seamlessly) into his vocabulary.
When we landed, the stewardesses thanked the police for their service over the PA and wished them a good trip. Thunderous applause. We deplaned and I entered the jet bridge and walked up the ramp. When I got to the entrance to the gate, I gasped.
There to greet the plane was a line of policemen and policewomen in full memorial uniform. They lined both sides of the gate, standing silently to honor the officers coming off the plane. The black of the cloth was midnight dark, the gleaming metal of the badges, medals, and stripes polished to a shine. Everyone wore their caps or helmets. I didn’t feel worthy to walk through first (I was sitting at the front of the plane.) I bowed my head and blinked my eyes to stop the stinging.
I realize America’s police are under scrutiny right now. There are problems — big ones — and they must be considered and we must be fearless in our examination of process and ethics in this piece of our government. Regardless, we are in debt to the vast, vast majority of our civil protectors All around the airport, people were staring at the display, craning their heads to see, thinking there was a dignitary surely on the flight that had just arrived.
They were mostly right. But there were two hundred dignitaries, not just one.
This blog is honest. Everything I tell you is real, and it’s true. Okay, it’s my truth — everyone has their version — but I come to the mat every time with the real deal.
But of course I can’t tell the whole truth, all the time. Sometimes this is because it would be inappropriate — someone else’s privacy needs to be respected, my privacy needs to be respected, it ain’t ready for prime-time, it’s too racy, it’s an over-share, etc. — but sometimes it’s because I’m scared.
Telling just how hard it’s been to move through my life in the past few months, this is something I haven’t been as honest about as I could’ve been. There was a moment of it, but I’ve held back the truly wrenching experience that has been choosing my next step. I am a naturally decisive person, so this back-and-forth has been nothing short of excruciating. Deciding where to live in a matter of weeks — Chicago or Washington — has made me realize that to be a woman with no boundaries presents as many challenges as someone who feels stuck in one place. I have no baby who needs to be fed. I have no husband with whom I make major decisions. I don’t even have a desk job. To be so free, I say unto you, is not so easy.
I haven’t been entirely forthcoming about how my heart has ached. For love lost, love found, love lost again. No one wants to read some maudlin, whiny girl mope about her love life — and this maudlin, whiny girl wouldn’t dare write the stuff — but perhaps I have over-pruned. Sharing that I find myself aching, longing, thrilled, excited, devastated, and confused in matters of the heart almost daily might help someone else out there. If you are that someone else, it’s high time I tell you that I understand.
Today, I turned in my lease. I’m staying in Washington, DC for another year and I’d like to tell you how I finally chose this. You might think what ultimately pushed me in this direction is odd, but to me it was perfect, it was right on time, and I was so grateful I cried.
I’m working on memorizing a Longfellow poem called “The Day Is Done.” Please take a moment to read the whole thing sometime. It’s about a person who wants to hear a poem in the evening — but he doesn’t want anything fancy or difficult (e.g., Homer). He says:
“Read from some humbler poet Whose songs gushed from her heart As showers from the clouds of summer, Or tears from the eyelids start.
Who, through long days of labor, And nights devoid of ease Still heard in her soul the music Of wonderful melodies.”
That poem is why I’m staying in Washington. Oh, for heaven’s sake it’s more than that — perhaps I’ll detail more tomorrow so you don’t think I’ve lost my mind and am making choices entirely based on dead poets — but those verses were my tipping point.
Long days of labor? I know about labor. Nights devoid of ease? Yes, those. But through it all, I keep hearing these melodies. If I keep up the labor, if I’m not afraid of the night, I feel like the melodies will keep coming to me. And I can’t live without them. I wouldn’t want to.
So I’ll honor the melodies by laboring longer. I’ll give them new sights to see, here in the almost-South. I can’t wait to tell you all about the apartment I found on the 10th floor of a beautiful historic building. It looks over a valley so lush and green right now, you can’t imagine how beautiful it is. I’ll stay and watch the leaves in that valley turn to bronze and gold, then fall, then grow again.
Then we’ll see what the melodies want me to do next.
Not much. A sofa makes the news in your head or your household when you buy a new one. A sofa is exciting when you’re shopping for a new one. It’s exciting when you remove the old one and put in the new one. After a few weeks, though, the sofa recedes into the landscape of your home and that’s good because you have better things to think about. Hopefully.
But for me, for almost a year now, the object that is the couch* has stubbornly refused to leave my portfolio of active thoughts. This is because since leaving Chicago almost a year ago, regardless of the agony and the ecstasy of the entire adventure, it has been The Year of Terrible Couches. It’s like the Chinese “Year of The Goat” thing except no one is ever, ever born in The Year of Terrible Couches and we should all be thankful for that. Let’s celebrate by eating a fortune cookie. Done? Excellent. Let’s examine what I’m talking about.
When I was first in New York with Yuri, we had a furnished place for just a couple months on 10th Street and 2nd Ave. I filmed my book promo video while we were in that place. Then, when we officially moved to New York in June, we got a furnished place on St. Mark’s. Then, when everything became hard and sad, I moved into a furnished apartment in D.C. with rats in the walls. Then, the management company relocated me to the place where I’m sitting currently. That’s not one, not two, not three (I’m weeping, now), but four furnished apartments in a single year.
You do realize this is not my normal life, right? I am not a fan of chaos. Chaos, it appears, is extremely fond of me, at least this year. Thanks, chaos.
Here’s the thing about furnished apartments: they are lousy. If you have no furniture, maybe they are great. Any couch is better than no couch, right? Fine. But I have a couch. I have arguably the best couch ever. It’s in Chicago right now, being used by my adorable med school tenants. Why? Because moving to NYC was always going to be a yearlong experiment and what are you, nuts?! You can’t move a couch into Manhattan! You have to go there with your hobo stick and just figure it out from there, find someone who can take you to the IKEA in Jersey! Please! Anyway, my gorgeous couch in Chicago is wide. It’s leather. It’s sky blue leather with chrome legs. (I bought it at a sample sale at Design Within Reach.) It’s sleek and sexy, but it’s functional. You can take a nap on it. You can sit cross-legged and eat your lunch on it. You can watch a movie on it. And you can… Well, you can do a lot of things on that couch. Trust me.
The four couches that I have been subjected to over the past year… I can hardly talk about it. Do you realize how awful a couch can be? If it’s shallow, your back hurts when you try to sit back. If it’s a sectional that doesn’t have those grippy things on the bottom and your floor is slick, the parts separate and slide all around! Good grief! That’s a Beckett play! If the couch is so old it’s buckling (see: St. Mark’s) you are asking for early-onset arthritis. A bad couch is sad, indeed, and I realize this is as luxury a problem as luxury problems get. But what can I do? It’s been The Year of Terrible Couches and as the hourglass runs out of sand, as I am forced to make a decision to stay in D.C. or go back to Chicago, this much is true: The Year of Terrible Couches is about to end. If I go home, I get my couch. If I stay here, I’m going back for all my stuff, kids. If I stay in D.C., I am staying in D.C. with my couch.
I woke up. I wrote for a few hours. I drank tea during those hours, tea with probably too much cream and honey. I don’t want to live in a world without pots of tea with cream and honey, so there you have it.
Errands were run. Dry cleaning. Grocery store, because I needed cream and honey. I didn’t get to the post office and I feel bad about that. I didn’t go on a walk to no place at all and I feel bad about that, too. I took a brief nap.
I did work. Emails, proposals, thinking-cap sorts of things. Correspondence. Invoicing. I called a friend of mine, I tidied the kitchen, I received a UPS box. It contained a quilt that has finally come home after a year of being out for editorial, or a show, or because it just needed to go find itself.
And at the end of all this, at the end of myself, what did I want?
I wanted to sew. I wanted to touch fabric. I wanted to turn on my iron to the hottest setting she’s got. I wanted to slice and dice the selected fabric and stitch it back together again, paired now with other fabrics, paired now with other patchwork in order to create a more perfect union. After looking at quilts, talking about them, reading about them, being steeped in the whole thing most of the day — more than anything in the world, I wanted to try a quilt block because I have wanted to try “Tree of Life” for about a year.
Isn’t it marvelous? Making quilts?
The hum of the machine as it sews is something close to maternal. The snip of thread scissors does something important in the brain. The steam that rises from the iron, if I may be a little woo-woo, is purifying. And the thing about the process of making patchwork is that it’s fun and engaging and satisfying, but at the end of your efforts, you have a quilt. You don’t have a puzzle that needs to be scooped up and put back in the box. You don’t have a model airplane, the function of which is now to collect dust on the top of a bookshelf in grandpa’s office. A quilt wraps around a body. A quilt is functional art. A quilt is for you, and for me, and forever.
To those on the fence or those who are stumped; to those who are searching for something that will make it all better — or increase the joy factor in an already wildly fun existence — I strongly recommend making a quilt. It works for me.
America is not always easy on the eyes. We’re disfigured, materially and psychically. You see the rips and tears in the outskirts of Baltimore. Once-thriving small towns in Nebraska are pock-marked, defeated. Suburban malaise spreads and spreads like runny, watery jam. The ants are either coming or they’ve already set up shop. I don’t like ants. I’ve never liked jam, either, while we’re at it.
But I love America anyway. I believe being a patriot means just that: seeing the whole mess and loving it anyway.
Part of the way I earn my bread these days is by traveling across this country, which means I get a good look at the thing. A friend and I were trying to figure out how many states he had visited and I had him beat with a stick. He’s never been to Minnesota! Or Nebraska! Or Iowa! I realize these states do not have the glamour profile of California or New Hampshire, but the rolling green hills pushed up by the mighty Mississippi? The endless blue sky of Kansas? The splendor, however diminished, of downtown Minneapolis? These are American gifts, every bit the knockouts of a Connecticut in autumn or a Sonoma during the grape harvest. Don’t make me get out Great American Literature, man. I ain’t afraid to hit you with Dos Passos, Twain, Cooper, Cather. You get into those and you’ll be on the next flight to the flyover states, looking for the American splendor you’ve been missing.
I’m in Columbus, Georgia tonight, resting up for a packed day tomorrow with the GALA (that’s Georgia/Louisiana) quilters. We did a meet-and-greet this evening; tomorrow it’s two lectures, a workshop, and a trunk show and book signing. My evening will be free and my hosts asked me if I wanted to go see the downtown area, take in a view of the Ocoee River, at least drive past the American Infantry Museum though it’ll be too late to go inside. Yes, I want to see these places. Yes, I want to get a feel for this place before I leave, before I know it. I’m a citizen of this country, after all. I ought to know where I live.
Columbus is Detroit is Palatine is Napa is New Haven is Greenwich is Pensacola is Boise is Brooklyn is Dyerstown is Eugene is Toledo is West Ridge is Princeton is Davenport is Fairfield is Bangor is you is me is you is me is me is me is you is you is me.
I’m at Washington, DC’s palatial, awe-inspiring Union Station, waiting for my Amtrak to Richmond, VA. I’m lecturing and teaching tomorrow and very much looking forward to it; not only do I get to earn a living in a soul-affirming way, I get to hang out in Union Station and then take a train for a couple hours, which is neat. I feel a bit lightheaded and dizzy today, but who cares when there is actual gold leaf on the domed ceiling high above my head. If I pass out I’ll get a great visual before everything goes dark.
Next week is almost entirely on the road. QuiltCon approacheth in Austin but before and after that, I’ll be in Chicago doing a number of poetry gigs for high schools and one middle school. In February and April every year there is lots of creative writing programming in schools in the Chicagoland area. You could say I’m on the circuit; I’ve been a visiting writer-performer at these sorts of events for many years, now.
Because I get paid to do them, they are jobs. But barely, because I love them so much. The gigs typically consist of me performing poems and reading stuff I’ve written in a big auditorium; sometimes I teach a workshop or two. There’s one high school I love the best — I feel like I shouldn’t say which one but you know who you are — because the students are incredible and the teachers are fiercely invested in their jobs. When I tried to figure out how many years in a row I’ve been to this particular Writer’s Week, I got pale: I think it’s nine. Nine years has zapped past me? Oh, boy.
Each year I do school poetry/writing gigs — and this goes for all the schools — I try to do something totally different. Last year, I climbed up on a ladder and set a poem on fire. I do a Neo play where I kiss a student (on the cheek) and one year I put on big sunglasses at one point and covered a Lady Gaga song as though it were a poem, which it is. This year, because I’m feeling mortal, I’ve decided to treat the gig at my favorite school as though it were my last ever. I certainly hope it is not, but I asked myself: “If I never got to come back to this school that I love so much, what would I tell these people?”
Giving a physical gift to an audience member makes a huge impact; I learned this from my years as a Neo-Futurist. But I don’t want to give a gift to one person in the audience; I want to give a gift to every last one. So what I’ve done is copy off little cards that say what I would say to these students if I never saw them again. But giving a slip of paper is lame and since I happen to be a quilter with way, way too much fabric in my scrap bag(s), I am stitching fabric to the back of every card (see scan above.) There are, um, thousands of these to be made. I’m about halfway through the stack. After I get back from Richmond, before I go to Chicago, I’m gonna have to race to finish them.
But it’s worth it. I’ll make some tea. I’ll turn on my podcasts. I have a lot of other work to do on Tuesday, but I’ll make it. Not every student will care about these cards, and I know that. Plenty will get tossed in the garbage, which is lousy, but come on: it’s high school.
Sorry I didn’t do a spoiler alert to those students who read PaperGirl. But I promise my “show” will be good and hey, if you care to, you can make a little space in your wallet ahead of time.
The thing about being sick for a long time is that when you first get sick, everyone’s like, “Oh no! You’re sick! Can I help?!” but then life continues apace and no one can be faulted for kinda forgetting about sick folks. Not completely, not everyone, but the blush is off the IV tree after awhile. It’s okay. We are all doing our best, usually.
Libby Lehman is a quilt industry visionary who had a massive aneurism last year. She nearly died but did not die, which is to say she barely survived. When she came through her ground zero, her life was altered forever. She’ll probably never make a quilt again, though extraordinary things do happen and when they do, they do because people like Libby do them. Libby is in therapy, she is working on using her hands again and she learning to speak again. She’s gettin’ her sass back, too, from all reports. She needs 24-hour care, though, and there is nothing about that that does not suck.
My mom made a quilt to raise money for the medical bills not covered by Libby’s insurance. Mom used fabric by Moda that was expressly produced to raise money for Libby, too. The quilt is called “LIbby’s Log Cabin” and it’s gorgeous and it’s pictured above; the quilt is 60” x 75”. You can win this quilt by sending a donation of any amount to the address below; Libby’s sister is taking the donations. Mom will draw a name on Friday, February 13th and I promise to announce the winner on Facebook. Moda is also covering this contest, so watch their blog and Twitter and all that, too.
Libby was one of the first quilt industry people who was like, “Can we please stop using slide projectors and get on the whole digital projector thing?” She also pioneered new techniques in thread painting in contemporary quilts. Without innovation, art goes nowhere. Without early adopters, people go nowhere. Libby is as cool now as she has always been, she just can’t walk or talk very well. By helping pay the Man for in-home therapy, medicine, and maybe even a dinner out at some point for her 24-hour caregivers, you’re helping your fellow man, your fellow women, and yourself. Because we are all temporarily-abled, you know.
For your chance to win, send a donation of any amount to:
About a month ago, I announced (publicly, though that sounds too fancy) that I was leaving Quilty magazine as editor. I had made my decision in August and, painful as it was, it was the right thing to do.
A number of weeks ago, my publisher informed me that Quilty magazine is closing.
The May/Jun ’15 issue will be the last issue. Me and Team Quilty are putting the finishing touches on the Mar/Apr ’15 issue now and that will be out at the end of next month. Then it’s just the one more issue in the spring and poof: gone with the wind.
When I go to speak at guilds and quilt events around the country, I will inevitably be approached by a smiling, happy woman with a copy of the first issue of the magazine.
“I’ve loved this magazine from the start,” she’ll say. “It’s so friendly. It’s so easy to read and honestly, this magazine has taught me how to make quilts. I love the articles, I love the tips, I love the videos that show you how to do everything… Thank you, Quilty!” I’d thank her for reading, thank her for buying, and I’d joke that she was smart to get the first issue, as it’s clearly going to be a collector’s item. I don’t want to inflate the value of a niche market periodical, but this might actually be true, now.
Quilty is just a magazine in a sea of magazines. Except that it isn’t. Before Quilty, there was never a magazine devoted entirely to the beginner quilter. It was my vision that this absolutely had to exist if we (quilters and the quilt industry) wanted to bridge a strange, frightening gap that is occurring for the first time in American history — namely, that we have a culture that still values quilts and we have great numbers of people who want to make them, but we have now and will have forever more a culture that does not teach sewing. We are a service industry. We are not manufacturers. For all intents and purposes, manufacturing and fabrication in America is over. We’re not going to start sewing our own clothes again and that means there aren’t sewing machines in the home.
So for the women and men who want to make a wedding quilt for their best friend in the whole world but who haven’t the faintest idea that you have to plug in the foot peddle or wind a bobbin to sew a stitch (“What’s a bobbin?”) there simply has to be a landing place for them, a world of with-it, clear, and yes, dammit, entertaining how-to content where they can get beginner instruction and actually reach their goal: to make their best friend a gift that is an actual, physical manifestation of love, that will last generations, and that will secure their place as the Person Who Gave The Best Gift Ever, BAM.
Quilty was that place, that friendly landing place. Surely, there will be something that will fill the gap when Quilty closes. There has to be. It’s not like Quilty was or is only one place for a beginner quilter to get help, thank goodness. But there was only one Quilty. Only one Spooly. Only a short period of years where being a little bit weird and a little bit funny actually happened in a quilt magazine.
I think the Quilty videos will continue after I leave; I’ve got one more shoot to do in April, then it’s no longer my sea-faring vessel to man, so I don’t know. There are thousands and thousands of fierce Quilty fans out there. I see their letters, I meet them, I watch the ticker tick up on the video views. You matter, friends, even if those fabulous, glossy pages will be no more. Keep learning, keep asking questions. Tell the Quilt Police to go play in traffic. Make the quilts you want to make.
And buy up a bunch of past issues. Let’s start that eBay bidding war.
I went on a walk through Capitol Hill this morning and at the base of the front steps of the Capitol Building, I wept.
It’s fair to say that the widespread use of irony has flattened huge tracts of human experience in our culture. What I mean by that is that we say stuff all the time in an ironic way (e.g., “C’mon, I love fruitcake,” or “A rainstorm is exactly what I hoped would happen on game day,” or “Nothing like a pleasant stroll through Times Square on New Year’s Eve!”) and for the most part, we all recognize that irony (at least our American version of it) is happening. Art does this, too: Jeff Koons, though I really like his stuff, is totally ironic (e.g., a sculpture depicts the Pink Panther hugging a busty blonde; there’s a series of photographs where Koons is engaged in explicit sex with his wife, but it’s all styled in romance novel memes.) But one of the results of this style of communication is that it’s risky to have a genuinely sincere moment of vulnerability or sensitivity.
For example, when I say I wept at the steps of the Capitol, it would be easy to be like, “Yikes, that is really cheesy, Fons”; it would be easy to cringe a little because being touched by architectural beauty and the grand symbols of our democracy has so been done before.
Yo, irony: suck an egg. I was a grateful, wobbly, sincerely weeping American this morning and it felt fantastic. Not indulgent. Not grody. Just honest.
And as I stood there and gazed up at the dome and cast my eyes all around at the fountains and the sculpture, at the wide open space of Washington, D.C., I knew that later today, there would be crowds of protesters, exercising their right to protest. I loved that the grand space was so open; there are no gates to the Capitol, just sidewalks that lead right up to the door. I felt good to be a taxpayer and that definitely does not happen often. (“I love paying quarterly taxes, don’t you??)
Leaving New York was hard. The breakup was harder. But one has to trust oneself. I’m so much happier here it’s almost shocking. There are wide-open spaces, there is clean air, there are trains where you can find a (clean) seat.
1. Learning to spell my middle name in kindergarten (“Katherine” is long)
2. Opening a Roth IRA in my mid-twenties (I was a waitress and it wasn’t much of an investment but I did it, anyway)
3. Being included in the first-ever Best of Write Club anthology (out this month.)
Write Club is a live lit show started in Chicago a few years ago by writer-performer-genius Ian Belknap. The show goes in three bouts, with two writers per bout. A week in advance of the show, Ian pairs up the writers and assigns each pair two opposing ideas, e.g., Rain vs. Shine, Hello vs. Goodbye, Fire vs. Water, etc. One writer takes “Hello” and the other takes “Goodbye” and they go off and write a piece extolling the virtues of the side they drew. You get seven minutes up onstage to deliver the piece you’ve written, onstage, at the mic. No props, no costumes. There’s a clock that ticks down from seven minutes. There’s a packed house every week. The bouts get ferocious and amazing and heated. The audience goes crazy with love and loyalties. The winner of each bout is picked by the audience; whoever gets the loudest, frothingest cheering wins and the winner’s fist is hauled up into the air by Ian, just like you’re a boxer and the crowd goes wild. If you win your bout, you get to name any charity you want to give your prize money to and that’s what happens with your prize money.
I can’t describe how incredible Write Club is because it’s late, my contacts are crunchy, and I have to be on a plane at 7am tomorrow morning. The best I can do tonight is to tell you that Write Club will leave you breathless. There is astounding writing talent in Chicago. We have so many brilliant people writing here, it approaches embarrassing. We’re stinking, filthy rich with good writers who are alive, which is to say nothing about all the ones who are dead (e.g., Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Lorraine Hanesberry, etc., etc.) I’m honored to call many of these (alive) people my friends and I’m goofy, nerdy, tripping-over-my-feet happy to be able to write alongside them every once in awhile. Write Club has expanded to San Francisco, Atlanta, L.A., and Toronto; more cities are sure to come, and I hope they do. But the show was born here in Chicago and it will always have the imprint of Chicago’s meaty fist in its forehead. Chea.
Anyway, The Best of Write Club anthology has come out and I’m in it. I haven’t stopped pinching myself. There are 24 writers in there and my friend Chloe and I start the whole book off with the essays we did for our bout, “Foreign” vs. “Native.” I drew “Foreign”. I won the bout that night, but a) Chloe’s essay is amazing and b) my first time at Write Club, I lost my bout. It’s a hard game.
I have a book sale going on right now and you should take advantage of that. But if you’re like me and you buy .8 books a day, get The Best of Write Club at a bookshop called The Book Cellar, or Amazon, or lots of places online. You’ll pay under $20 and get some of the best, freshest, most exhilarating writing you’re going to read this year. I saw a lot of it happen live and I’m telling you: these words are electric.
Note: I was at the Chicago Book Expo today to read my essay. That’s why I keep saying “here.”
I got the mail today and what was inside but a small, padded manila envelope from one Margaret Maloney. Margaret lives in Brooklyn and we had a blind date set up to go to a quilt guild meeting together this summer. I was unwell when the day came, however, and had only recently arrived home from an out-of-town trip. I was too pooped to pucker and bummed out not to meet Margaret.
Not long ago, she asked me for my mailing address, which of course I gave to her. Here is what she wrote on the card that came with the item you see above:
I hope that this Pocket Pendennis can be a help to you at times when a full-size sock monkey might be impractical. I think it is lucky — I worked on it on the train to and from a successful interview for admission into medical school. I’m sorry this city hasn’t been good to you — it doesn’t know what its missing! I hope our paths will cross another time.
I’m pretty speechless, Margaret. Thank you. Congratulations on getting into medical school and way to go being extremely articulate and possessing of stunning penmanship, but mostly thank you for hand-appliqueing my sweet little monkey on a quilted square. You cannot know how much better you made my day. It was rainy, I was sad, and my tummy is extremely mad at me these days.
My mother is writing a novel. I may have mentioned it.
She’s had her concept for years but in the past eighteen months she’s actually started writing the thing. At the start of the process she was brimming with confidence and wore her task with no sense of burden or doom. As she’s descended further into the pain and agony of writing a book that she very much wishes to be good, she’s decidedly less chirpy. My mother is the first to say that she has a lot to learn about writing; she’s joined several writing workshops, she’s read or is reading lots of books on how to write effective, engaging fiction, and she’s working every day on this project. She’s going at it the right way, now. She’s going at it like she’s going into battle.
When I’m home in Iowa or up at the lake house as I was for the past five days, I am the first to greet my mother each day. This is because she and I wake up about the same time and do the same thing every day, wherever we are: we write. She gets her coffee and her laptop and stabs away at her novel there on the couch; I get my Earl Grey and my current journal and write away in that, sitting in an easy chair (in another room.) We don’t say much at that hour — it’s usually before 6am — because neither of us has gotten up to chat. We’re up to write, good, bad, or ugly. What is true for me is true for my mom, too: that morning writing time is usually the best part of our day. No matter where I find myself in the morning — a Holiday Inn in Omaha, a brownstone in Manhattan, an airplane, etc. — I find my pen and spend time on paper.
Why do it?
Mom and I have different reasons for writing, but whatever compels people to get up before dawn to put thoughts into words is complex, so it’s hard to sort motivational distinctions. Most writers want all the things being a “good writer” confers; the order of the list of stuff might change, but the stuff stays the same. My mom wants to write a novel because she loves to read; because she wants the sense of accomplishment that being a published fiction writer would bring; she wants to show the world she’s good at something other than quilts; she loves and believes in her book concept; because writing it is hard but it is frequently fun; because it’s a challenge. She wants to be interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, too, and has a few of her replies already prepared for when the time comes.
I write for different reasons and before I say what those are, I must emphasize that Mom’s reasons are not better than mine, nor are mine better than hers. They’re just different reasons. I write because I would lose my mind if I didn’t. That’s not hyperbole; that’s the straight dope. The only way I can make sense of my life, this planet, what I see, what I experience, how I think, what I do, what you do, and what it all might possibly mean, is to write it down. If I don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. That’s figurative (read: “If it’s not written down, it didn’t matter that much”) but it’s also literal: If I don’t write it down, I fear it did not happen. There isn’t always reliable proof of the past. Were we there? Did she say that? Is he really gone? When did we go? What was I wearing? Could we have really felt that way and then felt another way? Life is but a dream: I’d better keep a record or risk waking up and forgetting it completely.
I also write because of something American philosopher John Dewey said that, when I came across it many years ago, stuck to my brain like a wad of gum on a theater seat:
“If you are deeply moved by some experience, write a letter to your grandmother. It will help you to better understand the experience and it will bring great pleasure to your grandmother.”
To make sense of the world, I have to write it down. If it brings pleasure to someone else, well, that’s some pie a la mode, right there. Most of it sucks. I’ll never be Mark Twain. I’ll never even be Erma Bombeck (who was great, in her Bombeckian way.) I’ll just be me, sorting it all out.