I’m composing a blog post about the legendary London fog — if you’re like me, it’s not what you think it is — but until then, I’d like to direct your attention to a little thing I put up on YouTube a couple days ago.
For the past couple years, I’ve been working a second job. My dream is to make a 10-part documentary series that tells the history — the whole history, in all its glory and complexity — of quilts in America. The story of quilts in America is the story of America itself, so I guess what I’m trying to do is tell the history of our country. It’s daunting, but I won’t give up until I do it.
From the start, the goal has been to pitch the show to a major streaming network, like Netflix, Amazon, etc. It’s essential that the beauty and cultural juggernaut that is the American quilt reach an audience that doesn’t already know about it. In increasingly digital lives, the tactile power of quilts is more important than ever: Quilts have been and will always be there for us — as long as we keep making them and valuing the people who do. (It’s in everyone’s best interest: Most quiltmakers give their quilts away, so if you’re hoping to have your own homemade, patchwork quilt at some point, hug a quilter today.)
Perhaps more pressing is the fact that our country is more divided than its been in a long time, and I sincerely believe that the story of American quilts can bring us together. It’s not a stretch. All kinds of Americans have made quilts for generations: rich and poor; Black, White, Brown, and Indigenous; in every corner of the nation, with fine or rough materials, with expert skill or with no sewing experience whatsoever, we have quilts in common. The quilt is a symbol of American ingenuity and the idea at the heart of our nation: each sovereign piece works with others to create a diverse, beautiful united whole that is far more powerful, together.
Under the direction of filmmaker Jack Newell (aka my brilliant brother-in-law), and with the financial support of Bee-Hive Productions, I’ve turned a few of my lectures on quilt history into what I hope are entertaining “shows” for YouTube. I’m calling it The Quilts Must Go On! because they have to; the title is a declaration as much as it is a kind of prayer. This little project is not the documentary; it’s just videos on the internet. But it’s been lots of fun to make.
I like to learn stuff and then share what I learned. Stuff is so crazy right now and has been so crazy. Maybe The Quilts Must Go On! will provide a distraction. Each episode is about an hour.
Here’s the link to the first episode, which apprehends the rather controversial topic of myths in the American quilt story. I hope you like what you see and I hope you’ll do the whole YouTube thing where you hit the “Like” button, subscribe to my channel, and share the link with your friends on social media or whatnot. If a quilt history nerd shares quilt history on the internet and no one hears it, did it really happen?
(It did, but it will be very depressing!)
When Mozart was eight years old, he went on tour. That’s how you roll when you’re eight and you’re Mozart.
Accompanied by his awesome dad, Wolfgang hit 17 cities, all the usual suspects on the European drawing room circuit; Paris, Vienna, Rome, etc.
Their last stop was London. If I walk out my door this morning and hang a right, it will take me 13 minutes to get to 180 Ebury Street where Leopold and Wolfgang ended up living for about a year. Mozart wrote his very first symphony at 180 Ebury Street, aptly titled Symphony No. 1.
Say I decide to extend my hypothetical morning walk. Let’s say I swing by Gail’s Bakery and purchase a warm custard croissant and a hot cappuccino, and I think we can all agree that I should hypothetically do this. If I head south toward the Thames, it will take me 27 minutes to arrive at Cheyne Walk, slightly longer if my body feels weak on account of that demonically good croissant, so … Let’s say it takes me 35 minutes.
Cheyne Walk is just a quarter-mile long the way a lot of streets here are just a quarter-mile long. It runs along the north bank of the Thames between the Albert Bridge and Battersea Bridge, and Cheyne Walk is a lovely, lovely place, indeed. In spring, wisteria grows so high along some of the buildings it seems to pour down from the top; in autumn, well-manicured hedgerows are blanketed with crimson and gold-edged leaves, wide and fat and crispy, that sift down from the oak trees overhead. The apartment buildings would be imposing if they weren’t so charming, but they can’t get away from it. You might see a marmalade cat peeking through one of the tall, leaded-glass windows; all the pediments and pilasters are rounded; all the brick chimneys were clearly built to accommodate Santa Claus. Who wouldn’t want to live, at least for awhile, on Cheyne Walk?
The street has existed for about 300 years, so a lot of people have lived here. They have eaten their breakfasts, played their records, written and received letters, gone to sleep and gotten out of beds in these buildings. And it happens that a few Cheyne Walk residents made quite a name for themselves before, during, or after they lived here. This short street is notable not just for its beauty, but for all the notable people who lived on it. Dig:
George Eliot, author
J.M.W. Turner, painter
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter
Thomas Carlyle, philosopher
Bertrand Russell, philosopher
W. Somerset Maugham, author
J.M. Whistler, painter
Hilaire Belloc, poet and historian
Sylvia Pankhurst, superstar suffragist
Henry James, author
T.S. Eliot, poet
Amazing, right? And that is in no way an exhaustive list of all the remarkable people who had/have addresses on Cheyne Walk — google it and you’ll see. But the names up there mean the most to me because those people produced work that resolves tumblers in the combination locks of my brain. Even better, all that work was completed and all those people were dead way before I was even born.
This is infinitely comforting to me.
George Eliot knew all about heartache way before I ever went through a breakup, and what she wrote about love was waiting for me. Rossetti’s paintings of female flawlessness existed long before I looked in the mirror and admitted, as I did the other day, that I’m not so young. Just as the bloom of youth in La Ghirlandata is eternal, so is the vague despair I feel when I discover that my maiden days are over. Countless 40-something women have looked at La Ghirlandata and felt this; to join their club is both a defeat and a relief. I’m not alone; none of us are. Books and paintings that stand the test of time remind me that as special as I am, I’m not so special. There’s pure encouragement in it, if you’re open to it.
London does the same thing for me. Did you know that London is 2,000 years old? Two thousand.
I didn’t know that until recently, but it’s true: In 43 AD, the Celts who were loafing around were sacked by the Romans, who established the outpost they called “Londinium”. From there followed more sacking, and fires, plagues, wars, revolution, political chaos, etc. And now, 2,000 years later, here we are, strolling down Cheyne Walk with croissant crumbs on our jacket.
London has endured and that endurance makes me feel good, cuts me down to size in the best possible way, just like La Ghirlandata. London is an old place. It’s seen my type before. It didn’t rejoice when I got here and it won’t weep when I leave, because London doesn’t care about me — or you — that much. Not in the same way that New York City doesn’t care about one person. New York City doesn’t care about you because it’s doesn’t have time for you, and this feels hostile, like the way a mean girl treats you in the cafeteria. London doesn’t particularly care about you but London has nothing but time, so it might decided to watch you as you about your day. And, because it’s seen everything, if you screw up — when you screw up — it’s not inclined to laugh at you. There’s nothing new under the sun and besides, London is tired. London doesn’t want to laugh at you; London wants its slippers and its cuppa. Do this or don’t, London says; try this or don’t. Be a person in London for a brief flicker of time, dear, if that’s what you want. Then London gives you a pat and turns her great, heavy head to the next upstart to eventually them the same thing.
Being in an old city like this — being in London — makes me feel like I’m part of the human race, no more, no less. Now that I’ve felt it, finally, I confess that I don’t particularly want to leave. With the exception of Chicago, the other cities I’ve lived in made me feel like I was auditioning for them. In London, I’m just cast.
I thought this second half of the first post about London would lead off with how I ended up here, but Mozart and Cheyne Walk got in the way. The reason isn’t so crazy: The company Eric is with has a London office, and the opportunity arose for him to work on a project here for a few months. We arrived in August; we leave the first week of December.
I love it here. A lot. Like, an alarming amount.
I do not have a desire to travel the world.
It’s only been in the past year that I figured out why this might be, and only a matter of months that I’ve been brave enough to admit it.
It’s not something a person is supposed to say. When the “What would you do if you only had a year to live?” question is posed, we’re expected to get a dreamy look on our faces as we picture ourselves meandering through Moroccan spice markets, skiing through Switzerland, eating caviar in Red Square. We’re expected to want to explore everywhere that is not here, wherever “here” is, the argument being that world travel makes you smarter, more compassionate, more interesting; everyone wants to be described as cosmopolitan, someone “at ease in faraway lands, with an exciting and glamorous character associated with travel and a mixture of cultures.”
To be ambivalent about wanting to see the world is to be seen as too simple to grasp the importance — the necessity, even — of doing whatever you can to crisscross the globe before you’re dead. And watch out, because being pitied is a best-case scenario: The real danger here is that you’ll be labeled a xenophobe, which is one of the worst things a person can be. “Xenophobe” isn’t 100 percent synonymous with “racist”, but it’s real close.
Much to my relief (and yours, no doubt), it is my admiration of and fascination with people who grew up in cultures other than my own that is behind my reason for not needing to travel the world. It comes down to one simple thing:
If I can’t speak the language of a place — and aside from having survival Spanish, you can bet I can’t — I’m miserable.
Language is as fundamental to the shape of a country as the indelible lines of its border. A people’s language nourishes the people who speak, read, and write it, and as they do, they turn the words and phrases over and over across centuries until their language is a smooth, polished stone, carried and shared within their culture. The language of a place is the code for its literature, its science and medicine, its faith and prayer. Language puts words to experience, which is to say that it is experience itself. To experience a place without access to its language is, to me, no way to experience a place at all.
One of the most distressing aspects of this, for me anyway, is that without being able to fluently speak the language of a country while I’m in it, I am locked out of the humor of its people. This is disastrous. Sure, the language of pratfalls is universal, but delighting in the way someone plays with entendre, rhyme, puns; the structure of a great joke and the syntactical eccentricities of the teller, the timing — this is the stuff of humor, and outside of love, humor is the only thing that makes life bearable. What people find funny — and I mean really, really funny — is everything. If you want to truly be with someone, or a nation of someones (and this is the only way I ever want to be with anyone), you must understand nuance. If I can’t read a sign on a shop door that says “Back in 5 minutes”, how am I to have a nuanced experience with a place? How can I truly be in a foreign land without being able to speak the language(s) there?
Some of you might say, “Well, Mary, then study some languages! You’re young.”
You are very generous, but I am no longer officially young. I’m 41, and if a woman is not a polyglot by my age, she’s probably not going to be one. Yes, I could still learn Arabic before I die — and I would love to, and German, and Norwegian, the language of my ancestors — but if I were serious about it, I could do nothing else. My life would have to be that of a full-time student for the next who-knows-how-many years and as much as I’d like to travel the world and finally be there, upending my whole life so that I can appreciate the best knock-knock joke in the Sahara seems like a lot of work.
Here’s the thing: I have had the privilege to visit a couple other countries, namely Italy, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Germany, and England. And in all but that last one, I have found myself sad and suffocated much of the time. I don’t want to have just a few words to communicate with someone. I want to use more than the blunt instruments of “yes” and “no” and “thank you” and “no thank you” when communicating with another a human being and I do not want to force everyone I come into contact with — while I’m in their house — to speak English so that I can get around and feel comfortable. Why should they have to do all the heavy lifting just because I was born in a country that expects them to learn my language, but has never insisted that I learn theirs? On my soil, okay, we can speak English and I would love to, because I want to know everything. But when I’m in your country, I ought to speak your language and though I desperately wish I could, I can’t.
A philosopher said once that “Having a second language is like having a second soul.” I want like, 50 souls, but I only have one. And the one I have knows that language is her life raft. Without it, she drowns. In a foreign country. And she doesn’t know how to ask to use the bathroom. And she can’t read the poetry. And she can’t go see stand-up. And she can’t tell the difference between a sad love song and a song about someone who died. And she orders fermented mung bean soup when she thought she was ordering delicious cake. She knows she is supposed think all of this is mind-expanding, but she doesn’t think that. She thinks it sucks.
She’d give anything to read the plaques on the old city’s walls and marvel at the history of the country. She’d give anything to read a book written in the country’s mother tongue and understand something deep and fundamental about the place. She wants to exchange pleasantries with the kid at the bakery where she gets the bread every day and she wants to ask if there is coconut in the custard because she’s allergic, and she wants to understand that this pastry has coconut but that one doesn’t, and she want to be able to buy several of the second kind, thank you very much, and she wants to use exact change at the till.
She wants to not just understand the jokes; she wants to tell them. She wants to be in a foreign country where everything is different and she has the words to figure it out.
Enter England, stage right.
If you follow me on social media, you probably know that I’m in London. If you don’t follow me on social media and we don’t communicate IRL, London might come as a surprise. Heck, London is still a surprise to me and I’ve been here for two months.
There’s a lot to cover. But we have to start somewhere, and I’d like to start with social media. Let me put down my fish and chips. (Drops greasy wax paper into bin; wipes mouth with sleeve.)
This summer, after years of resisting all but the barest minimum of engagement on social media, I succumbed to her deadly embrace. For the past couple months I’ve been regularly posting content on Instagram, and it turns out that I like making short videos for the internet and captioning the pictures I post with more than brief, sterile descriptions and arbitrary timestamps, which is all I did with my Instagram photos for years.
I’ve not been completely out of the social media game, it’s true. I like Instagram because I genuinely enjoy taking pictures and it’s fun to throw my adventures into the mix with everyone else’s. It’s a good thing I like Instagram because at this point, you have to commit to at least one platform. My husband is a Twitter person, for example, but I never use it. So Eric, the Twitteriot, reads me breaking news and I, the Instagramarian, show him puppies. Neither of us do complicated dance breaks, as those are best left to TikTokerean youngsters who, judging by the volume of content they create, are very, very ready for the pandemic to be over.
But I never felt like I was doing Instagram — or any social media — correctly. In case you missed it, “doing” effective social media now basically requires a master’s degree. (I think I’m kidding, but it could be true.) Successful social media engagement is a scientific proposition. Or a militaristic one. Because if you want results, it takes a war-room approach: You have to tag things, always, and you’d better be cross-posting to all the platforms or you’re wasting your time. You have to use the right hashtags and follow others so they’ll follow you, but don’t just randomly follow anyone; you must be smart about the followed and the followers — and you need a lot of the second kind. No, like a lot. At all costs, you must not commit a cardinal social media sin in front of God and Mark Zuckerberg and everybody, because they will eviscerate you. What sin? It depends. And who is “they”? No one knows. It’s just them, and you’d better watch out because if they decide you screwed up, they will hate you. But who cares! It’s the internet. Everyone’s attention span has been worn down to a nub by this point. They’ll forget about it by tomorrow. It’s just social media! Have fun with it!
All this is vexing in the extreme, so my post volume has always been extremely low. Until recently, I never posted videos. And I’ve always been religious about writing as little as I could in any given caption or comment box. I mean, if you want to write 500 words on the internet, get a … blog.
Well that’s an interesting point, Mary.
Right, so about a month ago, I caught myself writing a paragraph’s worth of copy for a single Instagram caption. “This is a blog post,” I said to myself, looking up at the clock. I’d been at it for 20 minutes. “What are you doing?”
It appears that I’m still producing content on the internet, just in a different form. I’m not entirely comfortable with this arrangement, but I have to admit it reminds me of something.
From about 2001 to 2005, I was a hardcore performance poet, slamming my early-twenties heart out every Sunday night at Chicago’s legendary Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, the birthplace of slam poetry, the cradle of slam civilization. The form has extreme specifications: A slam poet goes onstage in front of a captive audience and gets a microphone. That’s it. No props, no costumes. She does not have access sound cues or lighting changes. It’s just her and her poem. And the simplicity of that set-up, the restrictions imposed by it, that spareness, it shapes the work in a beautiful way. You, the poet, have nowhere to hide. You have to come out swinging because you are the show and your poems and your performance provide the drama, the humor, the set and the scenery. But a good slam poet shouldn’t need light cues or a soundtrack to evoke emotion: The words and the delivery should be enough — and when performance poetry is done right, it’s more than enough.
By the way, everything I just said I learned in real time. And after years in the solo performance trenches, I had to admit that I desperately wanted to play with some props. Anything, really. Plastic lobster. Paper hat. Peanut butter and jelly. Anything. I had so many ideas! Imagine what I could do with just one tiny sound clip! My kingdom for a sock puppet! I had the word stuff down well enough; I needed to advance to the next level of making work for the stage: blackouts. Stage doors. Sound effects. Maybe someone other than my damn self onstage for once.
So I auditioned for the Neo-Futurists — a prop-friendly ensemble if there ever was one — and for the next almost-six years, I had all the plastic lobsters a girl could want. I got my paper hat, my light cues, all of it. The work I was allowed to do with the Neos was full-color and required tremendous physical effort. There was so much material in every sense of the word. The two eras shared much in common (e.g., wild creativity, breathless excitement, incredible people) but if Neo-Futurism was abundance, slam performance was austerity, and both eras brought tremendous gifts.
I think PaperGirl is slam. And my social media content isn’t Neo-Futurism, exactly, but it’s definitely a space where I get to use props if I want to, or goof around with sound cues, or make as many set changes as I please. You could make the argument that I’d better use all of those things if I want to exist in the dripping, gaping maw of social media. And doesn’t that sound fun.
So, if you want to hang out with me on my Instagram page or on my Facebook page, that would be nice. You’ll get a peek at London, and at Eric, every once in awhile. I styled a photo shoot for Liberty, and I posted about that. I am posting pictures of London, a city I am deeply in love with, which is alarming. And I’m filming a lot of quilt-related video content and that makes me happy.
Most of the content is on Instagram but I try to make sure it’s cross-posted to Facebook. However much I advance in the social media game, I remain deathly allergic Facebook. It’s bad. Facebook makes my throat close up and my body gets all scratchy and puffy and then I basically die of anaphylactic shock and then I’m buried and then I rise from the dead and come back and put a 1,000-year curse on Facebook for its crimes against humanity and then, just to be safe — and since at that point I’m a sentient, powerful ghost — I melt all Facebook’s servers and turn the resulting river of boiling plastic into a sweet, clear, babbling brook, which becomes a home for magic ducklings who grant me three wishes.
Oh, look: I have a chunk of fish left and a few chips.
(Picks up fish, eats. Wipes mouth on sleeve.)
This is the 15th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
I’m going to take a pause from Babs and tell you about Eric. And virtual reality.
Eric, by the way, is my husband.
Yes, I did get married, as many of you have either figured out, suspected, or been told by a trusted source. Eric and I celebrated our one-year anniversary one week ago.
The story of this occurrence is so lovely, true, and massive, I’ve struggled to write about how it happened, how it’s been, and how it is. I haven’t written about it explicitly until this very moment. I’ve begun many times and stalled, because there have been events in my 40 years life that are hard to write about, not for lack of wanting to write about them, but because writing is hard, but writing well is much, much harder, and when a sublime and massive event arrives, a writer who cares wants to write about that event not just well, but sublimely. She wants to write the story so that the text itself feels as lovely as the experience was, as true as it’s been, and as massive as it continues to be.
This is tall order for her brain and the poor English language, who will quickly wonder how it got into this mess. And, because the writer who cares knows it’s possible to make the English language tell the truth about sublime and massive things — the books on her shelf prove it — it makes it easy to stall. In fact, stalling is the easiest thing to do when a person wants to put into words a sublime, massive situation because the hardest thing to do is to get it right.
I should probably just tell you what happened, event by event. I could just aim for “simple” and forget “sublime”, just build small words, one by one, and let massive take care of itself. I’ll keep at it, I promise. I can’t help but try; there are two true joys in my life and they are writing and Eric. It would be lovely to marry them well.
I cannot believe I’ve shared this news in a post that features an image of a floppy disk of Frogger from 1984.
Okay, let’s talk about this quarantine business because it’s what’s on my mind. Is it on yours? Eric and I began our official, strict, shelter-in-place, safer-at-home experience on Friday, March 13th. That day, we took a Sharpie and wrote on the old, peeling wallpaper in the hallway: “Mary + Eric’s Covid Quarantine 2020” because it was amusing to us, like we were cartoons on a cartoon desert island, carving the days on a coconut tree. And that first week, we dutifully added a hashmark on the wallpaper each day. Perhaps we stopped because it did seem sort of silly, sort of fun, but there’s nothing silly about this.
Incidentally, I’ve always believed that aside from first-responders and ethical journalists, the people that deserve protection and respect in any society are the great standup comedians. That might seem strange to some of you, but the maestros — Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock, George Carlin, Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, and Michelle Wolf come to mind — witness and artfully tell the truth about human nature. When they do, we’re given access to a measure of relief, since laughing at ourselves is often the only way to get any. But not even the greats can help right now, so who are Eric and I to ironically mark days in the hall? It stopped being amusing so we stopped marking the days and now they all run together.
Anyway, about Frogger. A few months back, Eric purchased a VR headset for his PlayStation. “VR” stands for “Virtual Reality” and that thing looked ridiculous. I married Eric at City Hall four months after we met, and never once, not a single time — even through some real gnarly days in the past year — have I wondered if I made the right decision. I love the man more every day. But I do confess that when this 42-year-old person, this brilliant man, this funny Valentine of mine put that plastic contraption on his head and started swinging these two blinking wands into thin air, I stopped what I was doing and thought, “Well, you knew he was a nerd when you married him, Fons.”
When he handed the VR thing to me, I flatly refused it.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “I’m sure it’s very cool, but I am a serious person. I cannot put a plastic headset on my head and look around at things that do not exist. I support your fun, but I prefer to stay in regular reality, thank you very much.”
Headset or not, I am not a video game person, anyway. The last time I “gamed” was in 6th grade, probably, bored enough on a hot summer day in Iowa to pick up a controller on our old Nintendo. I was pretty sure I’d never “game” again. Pointless!
But because he was so into it and wanted to share the experience with me, he finally wore me down.
“Just for a second,” Eric said. “Just put it on for a second to see what it looks like. There’s a field of bunnies! You can walk around and look at everything! And there’s bunnies!”
I took the headset from him, holding it like a bag of old bananas. I put it on my head. Lo and behold, there was a navigable, digital field of shimmering bunnies that looked so real that I became dizzy and terrified and clawed it off of me.
Then came the pandemic. And around Week 2 of quarantine, after braving the long line at Trader Joe’s and seeing pictures semi trailers full of bodies parked behind New York hospitals, slipping into a different reality started to look attractive.
On top of that, Eric somehow managed to score an Oculus Quest. The Oculus Quest is one of the newest, most advanced VR contraptions on the market and it is a world away from the one he originally purchased (the one with the bunnies.) The Oculus Quest is sold out absolutely everywhere, but he just kept checking the website, I guess, and one day he got lucky. The old VR thing had a cord that had to connect to the TV and those derpy wands; the Oculus Quest is wireless and the derpy wands have been replaced with sleek controllers you hold in both hands. The headset is light and …
Y’all, I spend at least two hours a day on that thing. At least. I love it. I’m obsessed! When I finish this post, I’m going to go into the living room and put it on and play Beat Saber until I’m positively dripping with sweat.
Beat Saber is consistently ranked as the best game made so far in the VR genre. You put on the headset and suddenly you are basically in Tron. It’s not Tron, but it is this digital world — a very beautiful one, with moving set pieces and gradually changing colors and pretty, glowy things far up over your head. And suddenly you have a light saber in each hand — a light saber! — and then the music starts and it’s dancey music that (mostly) isn’t lame, and then these glowing blocks fly at you and you have to hit them before they hit you!
I’m telling you, it really, really feels like you have light sabers, because the VR thing works visually but it’s haptic, too, so when you cross your light sabers over your head, the real-life controllers in your hands actually buzz and give resistance, like you’re crossing the streams of two light sabers! I don’t know what that would actually feel like because light sabers are not real, but they feel so real in the game and it’s just amazing. It’s really amazing.
I am getting very, very good at Beat Saber. In the past month and a half, I have moved up the ranks. I went from playing games at the “Easy” level to the “Normal” level. Then I mastered all the “Hard” levels. Now I’m crushing the “Expert” levels. The final level is “Expert+” and I’ve got my work cut out for me. The higher the levels, the faster the glowing blocks fly at your head and in Expert+, they go fast enough to make me laugh. It looks impossible. But when my faith flags, I like to think of Serena Williams and how she practices every day and she perseveres and she’s one of the best tennis players to ever play the game. And I pick up my sabers and I hit glowing bricks. Hard.
Thank you for reading about how I got married and also about how I play video games, now. “I am the one who” never thought I’d do either of those things again, ever, but here we are.
And it’s sublime.