Museums In Progress

There she was, approaching my gate in the Atlanta airport, a stylish vision, decked out in a turquoise top, carrying a pumpkin colored purse, wearing red shoes and lugging a heavy purple carryon. She was on her way to Europe for the first time, and neutral was nowhere in her color scheme. One could say she was an exhibit of a colorful, exuberant traveler. Finally, after much planning and scheming, my sister Ellen was going to accompany me to Amsterdam.

Two intrepid travelers

Two intrepid travelers

Because my husband has business in Amsterdam, I have been fortunate enough to accompany him to that lovely city many times. Amsterdam May 2015-58Typically we travel there on a Friday, arrive Saturday and have the weekend to explore before he goes to work Monday through Wednesday. I have never had any trouble amusing myself while he worked, but I often thought how wonderful it would be to show someone around the city, someone who would love it as much as I did. Someone like my sister.Amsterdam May 2015-3

We had no reservations about whether we would travel well together,  meaning we knew we would not interfere with one another’s reading, nor would either of suggest tacky tourist activities.  Ellen did later voice a secret fear that I might rush her through the museums, as I had been to them before. Although to me museums are there to be visited over and over again, I also secretly feared I might experience a feeling of let down if I did not also find something to do that was new to me. I decided to take my role as a tour guide one day at a time, and adjust our plans as needed so that we both felt satisfied.

And lo, with a sidekick to amuse me while my husband worked, all became new in Amsterdam. To my delight, every single place I took my sister had changed to some degree since last I went. What bliss  it was to spend my days with someone who “museums” the way I do. I would call my museum style slow and careful, yet humane, meaning that I read everything I want to read but I don’t overwhelm myself. I’m happy to immerse myself in exhibits and lose all track of time, but I’m not compulsive about seeing everything the museum may have on offer.

In five days we girls museumed ourselves through the Anne Frank House, The Dutch Resistance Museum, the Amsterdam Museum, The Church of Our Lord In The Attic, The Van Gogh Museum, The Stejdelik, and the Rijksmuseum.

The Rijksmuseum. Don't even try to see it in one day. Even with the audio tour, you'll get lost.

The Rijksmuseum. Don’t even try to see it in one day. Even with the audio tour, you’ll get lost.

The Stedeljik had a lovely Matisse exhibit.

The Stedelijk had a lovely Matisse exhibit.

We were fortunate enough to avoid long lines at the Anne Frank House, as we went late in the day, after being the last people out of the Amsterdam Museum.

She took her time in the museum.

She took her time in the museum.

My fears of feeling bored or let down proved groundless, as did Ellen’s fears of being rushed. I was just as riveted by the exhibits as she was. Here we were, two ladies who try to live meaningful lives, reading about how others had spent theirs. Our daytime hours were spent touring carefully curated rooms, and our evenings were spent  gloriously debriefing. Over dinner we would pose question after question to one another about the city’s history and its development, for each of us is endlessly interested in the daily lives of others. Our questions really had no answers, but we just loved to share  ideas.

Deep, philosophical discussions after a day at the museums.

Deep, philosophical discussions after a day at the museums.

Of all we discussed what we kept coming back to was the value of self expression.  Again and again we had seen and read about examples of how ordinary people dealt with extraordinary conditions using what they could, never knowing how their works would one day inspire others. Some, wrote, some painted, some made needlework,some designed fashions, some composed music, but no matter the medium, they all used art to try to make meaning out of their lives. We marveled at how creativity was used to resist tyranny, to celebrate life, to save lives, or simply to endure.

Protesting Hitler and The Third Reich

Protesting Hitler and The Third Reich

A journal of the Occupation

A journal of the Occupation

A church built in an attic...that's creative!

A church built in an attic…that’s creative!

Sewing in an Indonesian prisoner of war camp.

Sewing in an Indonesian prisoner of war camp.

And of course, Van Gogh had his struggles.

And of course, Van Gogh had his struggles.

And sometimes it's just fun to make things!

And sometimes it’s just fun to make things!

Most of us will never have articles from our lives on display behind a glass case at a museum, but what if we knew they were going to be? What creation of mine would I donate as representative of the way I have lived my life? What would I write on the little placard beside my exhibit about how writing this, or painting that, or capturing an image  with a camera helped me deal with problems unique to my time of life?

I am sure that my sister and I would qualify for some sort of nerd exhibit, in that we spent most of our waking hours poring over artifacts inside museums, while outside the most liberal city in the world was vibrating with life.

Plus, my sister was the only bare legged woman in Amsterdam, a museum worthy contribution.

Plus, my sister was the only bare legged woman in Amsterdam, a museum worthy contribution.

But aren’t we all, as we make our way through life, cataloguing and curating our own little museums, filled with our own memories and hopefully, our creative efforts? In my own collection of life memories, I am so pleased to be able to add my experiences with my  sister, the colorful traveler, in Amsterdam, to see the city through her eyes, to revisit old haunts, and to enjoy being together.  Luckily, my museum is open at all hours, and I have a lifetime membership.

It's always beautiful, and always thought provoking.

It’s always beautiful, and always thought provoking.

Excused Absences – Part Two: The Royalty Pay A Visit

In the Fall of 2014 I learned that I was to be honored by a royal visit. No, not Prince Harry and Princess Catherine; they were already here last May for a wedding. This time the  royal personage involved was none other than my grandson, Prince Micah, making his first visit to Memphis, accompanied by  his royal attendants and parents,  Lady Cameron and  Sir Eric.

Since they would not be bringing a full accoutrement of Court members, I feared I would have to scramble around for some ladies in waiting, squires and the like.  But as soon as word of their visit got out, I was  fairly besieged with offers for royal duty. In fact, I feared we would have a surfeit of hangers on at the Memphis Court. In the end however, since in the South we would rather have too much of a thing than not enough, all who offered were given tasks to perform. And now, according to Prince Micah’s decree, the following pictures are to be shared with all  his subjects, as he was unable to grant an audience to all. Micah iun Memphis-5

Immediately upon arrival the Prince suffered a bout of very pink cheeks, brought about by the Arctic air. Someone forgot to order balmy temperatures.Micah iun Memphis-2

Luckily, heads did not roll. Here, Lady Cameron allows him to gnaw on a blanket.Micah iun Memphis-10

The diminutive Prince took quickly to allowing others to wait upon him. Here, the Matron Emmy receives a welcome opportunity.Micah iun Memphis-12 Early the first evening of the visit, two more matronly Ladies in Waiting arrived: Great Aunts Lady Ann and Lady Mare. They were suitably impressed with the Prince’s advanced growling and drooling skills.

State visits occurred on Saturday and Sunday with young Prince Ollie, approximately eight months of age,  who made the trip over from Arkansas with his attendants. Ladies Ann and Mare were able to serve both royal households. No pictures of the state visits are available at the moment, but Prince Micah was deemed the more bellicose of the two young rulers.

By Sunday evening, freezing rain and sleet covered the Memphis area. The frigid temperatures  caused  Prince Micah’s Court to be held largely in front of the fireplace. At this point, and I do lower my voice here, the two major female Court attendants began a  daring task which was distinctly unrelated to the Prince  – that of cleaning out an entire craft room. Lady Cameron felt that going through her high school detritus DURING A ROYAL VISIT was worth the risk. I bowed to her judgment.Micah iun Memphis-24

The entire Court tacitly withheld  knowledge of the craft room project from the minor monarch, fearing his wrath. Lady Cameron knew from experience that her young highness would nix such a project here just as he would at home. There were close calls, yes, but the swift interventions of the Jester Grandaddy and Sir Eric prevented certain disaster.Micah iun Memphis-11 Micah iun Memphis-14 I don’t believe the Prince noticed anything amiss,

I look normal, don't I?

I look normal, don’t I?

but by Tuesday he was plagued with a runny nose which may have diverted his attention. Upstairs the cleaning out moved apace, with hefty bag after hefty age of trash lined up in the hall. Downstairs the menfolk labored unsuccessfully to wipe their charge’s nose. As the Prince protested such treatment , suddenly we heard    – DING DONG!

And the next installment of Courtiers arrived – Sir Eric’s parents, who had driven through the ice and snow all the way from Illinois just to be able to see their grandson, the Prince.Micah iun Memphis-17

Lady Cameron consults with Sir Eric's Dad.

Lady Cameron consults with Sir Eric’s Dad, no doubt while Lady Annette rocked the Prince.

We were all glad for the influx of fresh attendants who knew more songs and silly games and who were willing to spend their days on the floor in front of the fireplace. I was mostly upstairs in knitting needle hell, for the project, once begun, could not be abandoned, and with new Court members on hand , my services would not be missed for the nonce.Micah iun Memphis-25

Through the week either the temperature or frozen precipitation kept the young Master indoors. Efforts were made to keep the Prince’s routine  unchanged from that of his California home. The Prince’s expectation is that his work continue unimpeded, no matter his location.Micah iun Memphis-9 Just when the Illinois contingent had to depart, Great Aunt Lady Ellen appeared upon the scene, and after a brief introduction to our local Princess Lillian, Micah iun Memphis-28was eager to participate in Court life and intrigue. Since the craft room had been the only intrigue, we made do with a sociological experiment about whether a cardboard box can rightfully be considered a throne.Micah iun Memphis-29 Too soon it was Saturday, and the last full day of the royal visit. The weather had improved enough for the Prince to hold an impromptu audience, which greatly cheered the throngs who had been denied a viewing.Micah iun Memphis-32 The Court members struggled to complete the rest of the scheduled events. First, there was the royal photo shoot, which had to be held indoors. Four attendants were required for the grueling session.Micah iun Memphis-34 And there was a last afternoon coffee, served with cookies, at which two more Court ladies, Great Aunt Lady Carla and Lady Alexis, and a fellow royal, Princess Cee Austin were able to pay Court to the Prince.Micah iun Memphis-35Micah iun Memphis-36Micah iun Memphis-26 The last night of the visit was rather glum, for every single member of the Court was sad and plumb worn out. This writer, for example, was unable to move from her own bed after 8:00 P.M. Sometime in the early morning the Prince and his small contingent were conveyed to the airport from which they returned to California.

We have had no negative feedback from the visit, so we must conclude that his Highness was pleased with the level of service that can be provided by a minimum of eleven volunteer attendants. I wonder if Prince Harry and Princess Catherine had such a well functioning temporary Court for their Memphis visit?

Picturing Life

As a magpie, I tend to make decisions based on what attracts me, believing that I’ll have a nice shiny time doing something regardless of my skill level. This is a practical point of view for someone who has not had much art education. One advantage of ignorance is that there is always more to learn.

However, with ignorance also comes frustration. Why doesn’t something come out the way I had hoped? Why are the directions so hard to understand? Why do these art materials want to thwart me? When the frustration mounts, I must find a class to take.

This past Saturday I finally took my first in-person photography class. I was nervous about this because a) it lasted all day and I don’t like to be confined, and b) because I knew good and well I did not know much about how to use my camera. Would the class be over my head? And what about when the teacher wanted to get into additional equipment such as zoom lenses? Because YIKES!!!! I had somehow LOST, LOST my zoom lens! What kind of a photographer does that?????

Saturday came, and once again the universe saved me. It turns out that what is behind photography is not fancy equipment, but the photographer’s trust in his own ability to see, and the patience to take many, many pictures until he gets it right. The day flew by as we looked at photo prints and photography books, learning about what makes a picture worth looking at.

I did learn some technical things which I have not yet tried out. I decided to get out my last set of pictures, those that I took last month when I went to Winston-Salem North Carolina for my nephew’s high school graduation and Eagle Scout ceremony. With what I just learned, would I find these pictures worth looking at? Look along with me now, and tell me what you think.

The three questions to ask yourself are: what do I see, what does it mean, and how do I know?

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Does the picture make you curious about the lady on the left? Here’s the story. We befriended her while waiting for our carry out order, and found that she had tried to donate her vintage LIFE magazines to Ellen’s library, and been turned down. But with Ellen to the rescue her treasures will now be accepted with thanks.

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Why photograph these guys? Because all of Ellen’s St. Francis statues have been decapitated through various means. A little too much of a coincidence, yes? Is it a curse of some kind? Sure, they’ve been repaired, but when will disaster strike again?

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My nephew’s Eagle Scout ceremony and combined grad/Scout party were on Sunday afternoon. Because of my sister’s graduate school schedule she had had to leave all the party prep to her hard working husband. What you see here are some of our efforts, before the party to turn an essentially male party into something civilized.

Imagine our horror when we saw on Sunday morning that the husband and son had lined up cloth camping chairs in a straight row across the backyard, blocking the bucolic view and reminding one of a Protestant wedding reception. The cloth chairs were banished by us, tactfully, and tablecloths added. In addition, we bought pillow cases to recover chair cushions and purchased potted herbs for natural centerpieces. Just then a Scoutmaster showed up to help. He allowed as how we should protect the tables from bird droppings, so he covered all our pretty work with hefty bags, weighted down with logs. Sigh.

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Here was the ceremony in a tiny country church.

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And here is the Scout with the beautiful soul. I would hope that his optimism and willingness to serve others comes through in the picture.

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I do not claim this as an example of a good photo, but seeing my salt of the earth brother in law moved to tears on Father’s Day was priceless to me.

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Then came the party. Above, my sister again tried to inject a little civilization with the relish tray. Note the implement being used to spear a goodie from the plate.

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In addition to simply trying to record the events of the day for the family, I also wanted to show through photos the way Ellen’s lifestyle differs from mine. She is fortunate enough to live a more rural lifestyle, while I am more of a city girl. Meaning that chickens would not be guests at my lawn party.

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But these girls made a day of it.

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As an out of town guest, I was paraded through the guests, and then allowed to mingle or simply observe as I chose. Folks came and went. Hilariously , some guests brought their OWN cloth camping chairs and lined them up in a row. Much meat was consumed my man and boy. The afternoon was unhurried and the weather glorious. DSC_0472

I was pleased to finally meet Ellen’s next door neighbor, Bonita who is an artist and photographer. She showed me a few camera tricks and took this photo of us, on manual setting, of course. When she left she invited me over to see her art studio.

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Later in the day I moseyed over to Bonita’s, opened the back gate and knocked on the door. She gave me permission to take photos of some memory books she has made, both of which have already been exhibited. Currently she is working on a photography book of vintage American movie theaters. Was I jealous? Yes.DSC_0517

When I returned from Bonita’s, most of the guests were gone. As the shadows grew long in the yard, a late staying guest built  a campfire. Don’t think this was not a thrill for a city girl.

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Those of us who were still there pulled chairs around the fire and put our feet up on logs. Fireflies swept past us as we listened to the calls of the owls and shared whatever stories came to mind. After a time fatigue and mosquitoes drove us inside.

I went to sleep to the sounds of the whirring attic fan, tired but gratified to have been a part of the day. I would have two more days to spend at my sister’s, providing moral support as she completed her end of the semester projects, folding clothes from the clothesline as needed, and taking night walks down her dark country road, wine glass in hand.

As I look through these pictures I ask myself the three questions. What do I see? I see a family celebrating a once in a lifetime event, surrounded by loving friends. I see a life made with love, humility, hard work and persistence. I see treasures in unexpected places.

What does it mean? To me it all means that life goes by swiftly, and we must tune in to get every bit of pleasure and whimsy it has to offer. It means I am fortunate to have these people in my life. How do I know? I know because I know, but does all of that come through to those who view my pictures?

I’m hoping you’ll let me know what you think.

Little Ole Ladies In Pasadena: Advice From Professionals

Magpie TV, devoted to bringing viewers the very best in practical information, is pleased to bring you travel tips from two very special little old ladies: The Magpie herself, and her stalwart companion Readmegirl. Hey, there’s precedent:

She's such a copycat! Source: starpulse.com

She’s such a copycat!
Source: starpulse.com

Martha Stewart appears on her own network. Tune in today to learn how to make sure YOUR trip feels as smooth as the zipper in your properly sized and packed suitcase  from start to finish!

Commercial Break: Planning a trip to Pasadena? We’d love to help, but we’ve only seen a few sights  there: Huntington Gardens, a famous bridge, and the Rose Bowl. What we can recommend is walking the neighborhoods and admiring people’s yards. If you happen to see inside their homes, so much the better. Here are a few neighborhood highlights:DSC_0382

DSC_0401DSC_0416Part One: The ladies, recently returned from visiting Krug The Thinker in Pasadena California, were not available to appear live, which is fine because this is not a live show anyway. Nor is it taped ahead of time. Our unique no audio/no video format made it oh so possible for our guest stars to compile some dos and don’ts from their most recent peregrination.We are also privileged to have some of their photos for our commercial breaks! ( We suggest some music now, but all we can think of is “Leaving’ On a Jet Plane.” Lame.)

1) Trip Planning: Arranging conveyance by airplane is more complicated than ever, warns  the Magpie.The fares, the routes, the service – all have become so unpredictable and frankly, unsuitable for civilized beings. What one wants and what is available often do not mesh conveniently. However, if possible, when arranging a trip, depart the morning AFTER the clock springs forward, depriving you of the one hour during which you sleep most deeply. You’ll be in such a daze you won’t even notice the delays or the bad breath of  the man behind you in the TSA line.

2) Airport Transportation: Never make assumptions about ground transportation. The wise traveler learns ahead of time what is available and makes arrangements accordingly. The alternative is to stand at the exit with one’s mouth open, inviting native insects in for a visit. IF one arranges a pickup by limousine service as the little ole ladies did, it is helpful upon landing  to respond immediately to the driver’s text announcing his arrival at the airport. But don’t call the one who most recently texted you. Ignore THAT text and call the one who picked you up last December!! That will really surprise him on his day off, and make for a zany good time leaving the airport!

Little Ole Ladies in Limo

Little Ole Ladies in Limo

3) Footwear:  Magpie makes it a point to have comfortable walking shoes. Last year the Magpie had occasion to own two identical pair of walking shoes, the first pair having rudely hidden themselves in the closet until after the second pair was purchased. Magpie’s response was to immediately put one pair inside her suitcase so she would always have a pair of walking shoes. Upon arrival at the Saga Court Motor Hotel, congratulating herself on her forethought, Magpie whipped both of those left footed babies right out of the suitcase.

Oops!

Oops!

4) Packing Light: Be creative! The Magpie never checks bags, so she tries to use multi purpose garments. For example, a bathing suit cover up can double as a nightgown. If, as happened to Magpie, you underestimate how cool it gets at night, especially with a roommate who wants the air conditioner running,  and you have to add a couple of shirts on top and a pair of jeans on the bottom so you won’t freeze, that bathing suit cover up will tuck right down in your jeans so that you barely have any bulges when you appear in the lobby in  your two left footed shoes and an ice bucket in which you plan to stack three or four cups of coffee to take  back to your room. Decorum is everything, Readmegirl reminds us.

This is a very nice look for the hotel lobby.

This is a very nice look for the hotel lobby.

5) Be Courteous! Some travel companions have odd proclivities, such as announcing that they cannot sleep while being serenaded with the combination of honking, sawing and gurgling that makes up snoring. If  you are awakened by a nudge in the middle of the night, and  are surprised to find a frowning yet familiar face hovering above you, demanding that you cease and desist, simply say “Thank you,” and go back to sleep. That’s how the Magpie handled it , and she’s convinced that the gentle approach to the nudger made all the difference.

Commercial Break: ( We recommend narration in a calm dignified tone.But you do what you want.)  Today we feature the Saga Court Motor Hotel  of Pasadena.

View from the second floor. Source: Saga Motor Hotel

View from the second floor. Source: Saga Motor Hotel

This 1960s gem, located on Route 66, offers palm trees, a heated pool, and 1980s bedspreads. (Now  a little suspenseful music.) In addition, the  Saga’s peach colored stucco walls, retro atmosphere including jalousied windows, will make you sure that a noir mystery is occurring on the premises. We can’t be sure one did NOT take place, as we had a mysterious call from someone asking for “Marcia.”Who calls anymore on your room phone?? Keep the Saga in mind when you visit Pasadena. It’s reasonably priced, has an air of mystery about it, AND has a few books to read in each room.IMG_2664

And now we return to our show: We’re learning so much about how the smart set travels. But there’s more!

6) Don’t Avoid Responsibility: When you have been invited into town to see someone, don’t make THEM do all the heavy lifting. Specifically, Readmegirl tells us, when your hostess announces that her one of her sweetest friends who is also an incredibly talented chef is in town and wants to cook for all of you, insist on supervising! You may look as though you are only snapping peas, lounging on the couch, and drinking a purple drink called an Aviation, but in fact you are making sure those kids don’t burn the house down. In the name of safety, search your heart for the humility needed to complete this noble task. You won’t be sorry!

Stealth  Supervision

Stealth Supervision

Can you trust a man who makes beautiful crusts with his bare hands?

Can you trust a man who makes beautiful crusts with his bare hands?

And makes you a beautiful purple drink in the middle of the afternoon????

And makes you a beautiful purple drink in the middle of the afternoon????

Supervision has its own rewards.

Supervision has its own rewards.

7) Clarify, clarify, clarify: Readmegirl reminds us of the importance of communication. Here’s the kind of ubiquitous situation to which she refers: When you are  enjoying a glass of wine at an Italian restaurant where the decor is reminiscent of the Ratpack days  and your sister returns from the restroom and announces, “We’re all going to have to go on a field trip to the bar after dinner. It’s got gold wallpaper with black stripes with  machine guns on the walls”, DO NOT JUST ASSUME THAT THE SHOTGUNS ARE REAL!!!!!! You will be so, so disappointed!

When they get so disappointed you have to let them sit in the special chairs for a few minutes.

When they get so disappointed you have to let them sit in the special chairs for a few minutes. I won’t say who thought the machine guns were real, only that between these two there are 78 years of formal education.

8 ) Don’t be territorial: You don’t have to be the center of attention at all times. Allow your travel companions to get ahead of you on walks and have their own conversations. After all it’s not THEIR fault you can’t keep up because you are having to wear someone else’s too large shoes that squeak so loudly that you have no chance to practice your favorite pastime of eavesdropping. Try not to take it personally when they get ahead of you while you lag behind to take pictures because after all, life is art, and that while ahead of you THEY witness a woman  watering her flowers clad only in a shirt and some shiny underpants. It won’t be easy, but in time you will get over it.

You can't be talking every moment when there is such beauty to capture...

You can’t be talking every moment when there is such beauty to capture…

Ahey're probably NOT talking about you.

And they’re probably NOT talking about you anyway. Right??

9) Use your Southern hospitality! Expect to be included in your hosts’ lives and activities. When invited to drink celebratory beers with a group of Cal Tech astrophysicists and assorted other left brain specimens, accept happily and chances are they’ll never dream you know nothing about science. Instead, choose a topic of universal interest, such as your own wedding 35 years ago, and how your seventeen year old sister had to drive home the car that your male guests had adorned with inappropriate sayings. That’s something everyone can relate to!

Nonmembers cannot make purchases at the Athaneum Club. So all we could do was amuse the geniuses with our wedding stories. It seemed an even trade.

Nonmembers cannot make purchases at the Athaneum Club. So all we could do was amuse the geniuses with our wedding stories. It seemed an even trade.

10) Getting Home: All good things must come to an end. If you are reluctant to end your voyage, chances are you will be packing, inexpertly, at the last minute. Some of the inexpertness could be due to the lateness of the hour, to the wine you are drinking to assuage your sadness, or to the knowledge  that the new suitcase you just  bought at the thrift store because luggage was 40 percent off does not unzip all the way around. Though Readmegirl is a very efficient little cuss, she could not make headway with her suitcase situation and was forced to avail herself of her sister’s help. Magpie’s expertise at least got all items packed, but put Readmegirl over the line for  carryons. Should this happen to you, advises Readmegirl, decide what you will give up if challenged at the airport. Should you decide to let go of the  red duffel bag you brought, as was Readmegirl’s choice, only leave your ignition key in the bag if you think it would be funny to call your husband and ask him to come pick you up at the airport one hour away from home at midnight. That joke never fails to get a response!

Readmegirl struggles with her unzippable bag. Note the expendable duffel on the floor. Who knew it contained one tiny loose ignition key?

Readmegirl struggles with her unzippable bag. Note the expendable duffel on the floor. Who knew it contained one tiny loose ignition key?

Well everyone, that’s all the time we have for today. We hope we’ve left you with some useful tips from this peripatetic duo. Viewers, as always, if you have tips to share, or simply want to validate the ladies’ experiences, we welcome your comments!DSC_0372 DSC_0407

Dearest Genevra,

Real Conversation between an unnamed friend and myself:

Her: What did you do today?

Me: I worked on a letter to my sister.

Her, in a confused tone : Can’t you all just email?

Me: Uh, no. That’s not the same.

Doh! Of course we could email, but that is irrelevant here. My sister and I write letters to one another. That is what we do.  In  intimate communication the object is not always the shortest line between two points. The process of choosing and forming strings of words into thoughts and then putting those on paper is an intellectual as well as a tactile pleasure. In today’s world, receiving a hand written letter is as rare as seeing a horse and carriage driving down one’s street. We like to do our part to keep this all but forgotten art alive.

For my sister and me, if I may be so bold, one function of our letter writing practice  is to try to recreate being together. Our physical time together is a sort of stream of consciousness. We may be in her kitchen washing dishes, and one of us will say, ” And about that food coop,” and the other will know what she means though we haven’t actually spoken about the coop since yesterday. Later, we can be in the same room reading, and one of us will look up and say,”Huh. Listen to this. These people went to tea  and ate beans on toast!” The other will nod, and return to her own reading without missing a beat.

I know you’re marveling at our heady, rich, vibrant repartee. Well, words can’t convey everything. Suffice it to say that when we are together we are attuned, all of a piece. And when I receive a letter from my sister it too is all of a piece. It is a running narrative of however many days it may take her to write the letter. We intersperse our daily routines with reviews of what we are reading, what our families are doing and with our interior lives.

For several years we wrote our letters as though we were living in the times of whatever literary characters we were exploring. This could mean we would start a letter with:

Dearest Genevra ( We used names more appropriate to the fiction we were reading)

I take pen in hand, fervently begging your forgiveness for the fearful delay in responding to your last missive. I daresay I fairly tremble to recount, though upon my honor I must, as required by my obligations as  a God fearing woman, the travails we have endured  here at Pilgrimage House, brought upon us by who knows what inhuman scourge. Even now as I write my dear Genevra, grey winds cause the fallen leaves to dance in what appears to be an evil announcement that here, within these walls, lies the plague known as streptococcus.

Or, if reading Barbara  Pym, one of our favorites:

Dear Sister,

I hope this finds you in good health. Today was a day like most others. I lit the gas ring this morning to brew some tea  before leaving for the office. As I nibbled on my burnt toast, I noticed, too late, that I had a ladder in my stockings. Lacking bus fare I walked all the blocks to work, but as I had my umbrella scarcely got too wet. One of my office mates, Hiram,  was under the weather and blew his nose all morning into a large white handkerchief. I believe his mother launders them for him. At the lunch hour I stopped at a nearby cafeteria for a bowl of tomato soup before dropping a few letters in the post. After work I dropped in St Augustus of the Fields for evensong; there were only five of us present including the vicar.

And so on. When events render us unable to be quite so playful, we just launch into  the fascinating stuff of our lives. For my part, I just get out paper and begin to write whatever is in my mind. Sometimes I add a little illustration, maybe  a stick figure of myself getting myself into some sort of jam such as dumping a plate of food on a stranger at a restaurant.Once I begin to write I go on and on until I have said everything I know: where I’ve been, what I’ve cooked, what I’ve read, where I’m going. And she’s going to love every single word!

Neither of us uses fancy stationery.  I prefer a legal pad because  my writing is large. Ellen uses paper recycled from her husband’s job at a hospital so the backs of her pages are often printed with diagrams of a human body. But we work around that. Since we write letters we don’t talk much on the phone; we can’t give away what we may have already written. If I see something she posts on facebook, that’s fine, but it doesn’t count because it was not personally directed to me.

We wait weeks for our letters, sometimes patiently, some times not. We usually let one another know that “the eagle has flown” so we know to be on the lookout for a thick, fat letter. Oh, and the sublime pleasure of opening that envelope, of running my hands over the pages of her distinctive  scrawl handwriting I would know anywhere! Usually her letters are written in several colors of ink, according to what she had handy to use while waiting for her daughter at volleyball practice, or before her graduate class met. We number our pages, which are never fewer than twenty.

At the end I feel I have made the rounds of her life with her, which I suppose is the next best thing to being there. For a day or two after I receive her letter I ruminate over whatever subjects she has broached, so that I can respond to them thoughtfully. Then the next chance I get I find a legal pad or notebook paper and begin writing back; I know she’ll be expecting my reply. I guess I had best get started right now; it’s my turn!

Ineffability and Responsibility, or To Hell and Back with My Sister

A Note from the Magpie:

Dear Readers,

You are about to be treated to the Mindful Magpie’s very first guest post, penned by none other than Ellen, my marvelously talented sister. Those who have not met her on this blog might like to visit this previous post and this one  , oh, and also this one to familiarize themselves with her coolness, or just jump right in! I’ll get out of the way now before she accuses me of being bossy.

I was rocking out to the radio as I pulled up to the little ticket dispenser at the Greensboro International Airport. Yes, you guessed it! I was on my way to visit my sister in Memphis, my hometown. The dispenser buzzed and stuck out its tongue at me. Still impressing all who might be listening with my vocal talent, I blithely yanked on the tongue to dislodge the long term parking ticket from its jaws. Let the games begin! I pulled forward into the lot without rolling up my window, so when I placed the little ticket on my dashboard as I always do, I saw it flutter gracefully out of my line of sight. No bother. I would place the little runaway in its proper spot before moving onto the terminal. Luck, I thought, was surely with me today. No sooner than I had whipped Zula, my little VW Jetta, into a strategic parking spot than the shuttle magically appeared right behind me. I’ll find that pesky parking ticket on the way home, I told myself. Meanwhile, adventure awaited me in the form of my daughter’s purple roll-on suitcase and the shuttle with its patiently purring engine. With no regrets, I nimbly hopped onto the shuttle and into my wild rumpus.

On my last night in Memphis with my sister I penned a list of activities which had filled our all-too-short time together. Yes, the list was longish (As my sister has pointed out previously, I am methodical). Yes, I really did engage in all the activities happily and willingly (As my sister has pointed out previously, I am motivated). Yes, we had used our time wisely (As my sister has pointed out previously, I am organized). Yes, yes, yes; a thousand times yes! This list, which has been displayed in my sister’s earlier post, is simply a litany of activities. It can in no way encompass what we did together in Memphis. What I achieved was the goal of spending as much time with my sister as humanly possible in the short amount of time we had together. Mini-goals included, but were not limited to, laughing uproariously and in a most unladylike manner (sorry, Mother!) on any and all pretexts; discussing issues large and small in no particular order or chronological sequence; eating some foods which either aren’t available at home or which no one else at my house likes but me-or both; and reading and discussing what we’ve read.

Here’s where ineffability comes into play. The time I spend with Mary Beth is akin to how a sunflower tracks the sun as it moves through the sky. It is how Monarch butterflies journey down to Mexico and back each year. It is how the Earth orbits the sun, and the Moon orbits the Earth in its turn. They do it because they must. And I spend time with my sister because I must. Words will not suffice to make my meaning clear, but I will try (As my sister has pointed out previously, I am determined). I have had Mary Beth in my life as long as I can remember. We share the same sense of humor and the same love of reading and other intellectual pursuits. I rarely have to explain myself to her, and I never have to pretend to act or feel any certain way to gain her approval. I extend her this same leeway.  Told ya words wouldn’t really get the job done. (As my sister has pointed out previously, I am task-oriented).

Responsibility touched down on my shoulders the minute I re-entered that long term parking lot after getting off the plane from Memphis via Atlanta.  Remember that little parking ticket which had fluttered down off the dashboard in the breeze from my open car window? Turns out it is awfully hard to leave the long term parking lot without it. Having never misplaced one before, I was unaware of this fact. I dumped the purple roll-on in the back seat and commenced to search for the little ticket. I looked high and low, but that little ticket just did not want to be found. No bother. I proceeded to the exit gate. There I learned for the first time what  hubbub could ensue when the little ticket went AWOL. No, the man could not just take my word for how long Zula had been parked in the lot. No, I did not have my boarding pass from the outbound trip. No, I did not have my itinerary (but you can be sure I will next time! As my sister has pointed out previously, I am a quick learner). Nothing for it but to trudge back to the terminal in the hopes that the desk employees could find some non-incriminating information for me. That bumpy landing in Greensboro had played havoc with other flights, so I had a long wait for my turn at the desk. Papers clutched firmly in my hand, I approached the exit booth for a second time. The fat raindrops dimpling Zula’s black hood convinced the little man that, as I had averred from the beginning, I did not park inside the deck but rather in the vast parking lot surrounding the exclusive parking deck.

When I was a young adult, Mary Beth tried upon many an occasion to share her worldly wisdom with me, often in an unsolicited manner. Unappreciative, I demanded that she quit telling me what to do. Mainly she has complied with this request.  I explained to my friends that Mary Beth could call me in the middle of the night, to tell me to do something, and I would do it. Following her lead had been ingrained behavior, even if I did protest every now and then. Some things never change. If Mary Beth said, “Come on, Ellen. We’re going to hell,” I would get my knitting, my book, and my big girl drink and jump into the car. After all, if that’s where Mary Beth is headed, then I want to go there too.* Uh, we did get round trip tickets, right?

*Disclaimer: The author of the post is in no way implying that her sister is going to hell in a hand basket or in any other  type of conveyance. Nor should any reader of this post so infer.

She Who Restores Me To Myself

Magpies, in their love of shininess, have an especial need to experience scintillating moments with glittery people. By glittery I do not mean shallow, brittle, self absorbed, or vain. I am talking about an honest  shine that comes from the inside all the way out, an  unconditional shine that radiates warmth over others, a brightly colored shine that pulsates with willingness to pursue novel endeavors. I am of course describing my sister Ellen.

I promised in my last post to write about our latest adventures. But first a little background. Last summer I wrote  a post about my sister in which I referred to her as L.G., or Little General. Ellen did not appreciate that appellation, so I have withdrawn that name from our lexicon. Last week, in a blaze of dervish like activity prior to boarding a plane, I referred to my sister as a hurricane, knowing that should she read the post I would be in big trouble, my kind intentions notwithstanding.

I am  now on record to say that Ellen gets things done, but she is NOT a general. She is a force of nature, but she is NOT a hurricane. What then, can I call her?  She is a person of great intellect, wit, and charm. Her droll humor and clever imagination cannot be matched. Her no nonsense work ethic and organizational skills are an inspiration to others.   Her zest for life is unparalleled, her enjoyment of it a sight to behold. Her authenticity is a beacon to my soul. AND she loves me!

I had not seen my sister since December 2012, when I spent one night with her en route to a friend’s cabin. Little did we know that six long months would pass before we could see one another again. Somehow, with our various travel and work schedules along with  family commitments, the weeks elapsed with no firm visiting plans.

We don’t talk on the phone much. We write letters by hand, on paper, to one another, and have for years. But this past semester many weeks separated our letters. I was beginning to feel like an American colonist awaiting word from the continent.  Had my letter been lost at sea, dashed on a rocky promontory after a shipwreck? Would I hear that she and her family had perished in a smallpox epidemic? Finally my impatience got the better of me. I left her the following cryptic voice mail,”The jig is up!”

That, ladies and gentlemen, got a response, and at last we were able to plan for her to come see me in my town. She flew in on a Friday night just as my husband was flying out on a business trip, making the timing just right for an All Girls’ Extravaganza. I picked up the  Hurric. picked her up at the airport and took her straight to my new midtown condo to spend the night.  She admired the condo, and we both exclaimed over the sweet note my husband had left for us.DSC_0744  Then she unpacked a few of her things.  As I watched her familiar movements and listened to her long accustomed  voice, I had this exact thought: I am restored to myself.

Our plan for the week was to have no plan. That way our plans couldn’t possibly go wrong. That evening, we wanted to eat dinner someplace where we could hear ourselves talk. I recommended a place where we chose a secluded table. No sooner had we sat down  than a large group of ladies, some under the influence of more than two martinis with more in the offing, began screaming raucously, in a way that truly rattles the eardrums.IMG_2071

What do you suppose Ellen did? She approached those ladies, put her arm around one, leaned in and had a little ole talk with them. And they lowered the volume! When we left the restaurant a waitress followed us out to thank her for helping with  the situation!!! How do you describe someone like this?

I told you she's a force of nature!

I told you she’s a force of nature!

The next day Ellen accompanied me to a Knit In Public Day at the zoo. She joined right in with these knitters, sharing knitting anecdotes from her own experiences.. And yes, she had brought her own knitting, self sufficient as always.  She patiently allowed me to show her off to these folks who may never see her again,with nary a complaint  about the heat or crowds. What would you call someone like that?DSC_0711

After knitting we stopped in a consignment store  to look for midcentury modern furniture pieces for my largely unfurnished condo. She said she did not know what midcentury modern was, but she found  me two tables, and rearranged my car so that they would both fit.IMG_2060 But that is not all! She went all the way back down to the condo with me and helped me schlep them up there in grocery carts! Impressive, right?

And wait! There's more! She moves furniture!

And wait! There’s more! She moves furniture!

On Sunday Ellen gamely accompanied me to the Book Club Brunch where she knew barely a soul.  I had actually not read the book to be discussed but by chance she had and was able to make salient comments while I nodded sagely. Though we were at a lovely function in a lovely home, Ellen murmured not  when I announced we must be moving on to the theater to see Death Trap. This allowed me to use my last two remaining season tickets and  also take advantage of the special that day for extending my subscription. All because of Ellen.

On Sunday night we dropped in to Tug’s at Mud Island to be waited upon by my son. While enjoying our meal there we proofread a paper my son was  writing for a summer school class. I am fairly sure we were the only two customers there discussing poetry. After dinner we took a leisurely stroll by the banks of the Mississippi River, remarking on the environs and how many pieces of driftwood resembled dinosaurs.DSC_0726 Thus ended another cultural evening.

After a discussion of poetry over dinner.

After a discussion of poetry over dinner.

DSC_0741Ellen did not flinch the next evening when it was time for Iyengar Yoga. Her graduate school schedule had  prevented her from going to her own class all winter, but she knew enough to know not to push herself. She has “subbed” in my class before, so many members were of course glad to see her. After yoga we spent some quality time outside on my pergola ( which her husband was instrumental in building)  before eating a lovely dinner of grilled vegetables and chicken. Prepared by Ellen.

Post yoga quality time.

Post yoga quality time.

Our chef having some well deserved relaxation.

Our chef having some well deserved relaxation.

Tuesday was my hair day but we made it Ellen’s hair day too. I told her I liked her hair better red than blonde highlighted, so she obligingly had it redone. I watched to see how the stylist blew it dry so I could show her later. We were too hungry to take pictures, so just believe me that we were two groovy red haired old ladies when we left that shop.

And Wednesday. By Wednesday I had to face a deadline – Mary Hannah’s portrait. For months I had been working on the portrait my niece  had asked me to paint. I had decided that I would have it finished as best I could by the time Ellen departed on Thursday so she could deliver it for me.  This meant that after helping me with some yardwork early in the day, Ellen would be stuck watching me paint.DSC_0751 Ellen had, however, bought some teeny tiny canvases, and tried her hand at them while I labored repeatedly  to get M. H.’s skin color to a reasonable tone. Or tint. Or something. Eventually, though her skin looked like combinations of calamine lotion and badly applied makeup, I could do no more. Ellen was suitably soothing and optimistic that the portrait would pass muster with her daughter.DSC_0758

One of Ellen's tiny canvases.

One of Ellen’s tiny canvases.

That night we again spent the night at the condo in order to be closer to the airport in the morning. We wanted to have a nice evening so I made us a reservation a place close by where I did not think there would be gaggles  of loud ladies. Ellen acquiesced when I suggested she change out of those crummy shorts, and together we walked in the blazing heat to the restaurant.  She changed into a skirt of mine that was too long, while  I was wearing a skirt I considered a little dowdy. As we walked I saw how easy it could be for the two of us to become peculiar old ladies together, going to the Early Bird Specials and matinees, careful to be home by dark.

It was a bittersweet evening. As I doodled on my side of the tablecloth, Ellen was compiling  a list of all we had done.

Now with red hair.

Now with red hair.

The list was long, but not nearly long enough. Oh, the things we would do if we had more time! Oh, how empty indeed would even the mundane events be without her! We decided once again that there was no help for it but to retire together in the same place, on the same property if possible. We’ll tell our husbands it’s the only way.IMG_2084

Ellen has gone home now. The portrait is delivered. I am trying to recalibrate myself after almost a week with this adorable creature who knows my thoughts, who finishes my sentences, who always finds something to celebrate. Now that you have read my post I must ask: what you would call my sister? How can she even be described? If you can think of anything – not L.G. or Hurricane of course- I’d be glad to know. For now, I’m just going to call her She Who Restores Me To Myself.DSC_0736