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Posts Tagged ‘memory’

What will they remember you for?

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, men, parenting, seniors, women on October 20, 2014 at 2:14 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20140508_093747431

A few days ago, we attended a memorial service in suburban Maryland for a family friend of my husband’s, a handsome, distinguished architect whose work spanned New York City and Detroit and who helped design JFK Airport.

I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but what a glorious service!

What a powerful reminder of the complicated, messy, loving lives we lead.

How we are often both reticent and expressive, if perhaps not when, where and how others might most have needed or wished for.

How our smallest words and deeds can, unwittingly, leave a lasting mark.

How much we crave connection, even as we blunder and stagger and do it so imperfectly that forgiveness is sometimes the greatest gift we are given.

How, for some fathers, their children are their greatest joy.

What did his friends, children, grandchildren and colleagues remember?

– He baked bread in clay flowerpots

– His amazing home-made pizza

– He loved classical music — and Rodrigo’s exquisite Concierto de Aranjuez was part of the service, played simply and beautifully on a gleaming black grand piano. A lone trumpet also played the Navy Anthem and My Funny Valentine.

– His service in WWII, inspiring a young seaman, a grandson in his medal-beribboned uniform, to tell us that’s what inspired him to join the Navy as well

– His midnight rescue, done calmly and gently, of his niece — out on a first date — who had locked the car keys in his borrowed car, with the engine running

– The day, as a Columbia School of Architecture student, he discovered that Frank Lloyd Wright was visiting New York City, staying at the Plaza Hotel. He jumped into a car, drove downtown to the Plaza — and, with no formal introduction, invited Wright back to campus for their 4:00 ritual tea. Wright, who then was paid $30,000 per lecture and had a New York Times interview scheduled that day, spontaneously agreed. (Now that’s chutzpah!)

– His three marriages; (as one female relative said, to loving laughter, “I kept hoping…”)

My husband clutched the late man’s brother’s hand, our dear friend, while I held Jose’s, knitting a fierce rope of love, something rough and strong to hold fast to.

We exited the church into brilliant fall sunshine to discover a raft of cellphone messages from Texas; my husband’s own half-brother, a man 24 years his senior, had suffered a major stroke and would likely not survive. He died a few hours later.

This, barely three days after Pratt Institute, where I now teach two classes, lost a female student to suicide, on campus.

It has been a week of death, of mourning, of loss, of remembrance.

Of our impossible, inevitable, inescapable fragility.

What will they say of you?

Is it what you hope?

The power of scent

In beauty, behavior, culture, design, domestic life, life, Style on September 15, 2013 at 12:34 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The first time I met my husband, the evening ended with an unusual flourish when he took off the red silk Buddhist prayer shawl he’d worn as a muffler and wrapped me in it. Its soft folds smelled of his cologne, 1881.

Done!

I love fragrance, especially those  created by L’Artisan Parfumeur, Diptyque, Creed, Joe Malone and Hermes.

I discovered this one, Escale a Portofino by Dior, in a duty-free shop. Created in 2008, it’s light and citrus-y, as are many of my favorites like this, “O’ de Lancome, launched in 1969. Delicious!

Have you ever sniffed “Diorissimo”, created in 1956? It’s like stepping into a huge field of lily of the valley and jasmine! As a teenager, I used to babysit for a woman who wore it — her home smelled so delicious as she prepared to go out for the evening.

Scent has such tremendous power.

My late stepmother, a ferocious creature, wore Caleche, a crisp number by Hermes. I’d like to wear it as well, but still consider it “hers.”

One of the craziest/sexiest beaux in my past wore Kouros. If I smell someone wearing it today, my knees still buckle a bit at the memories…

Twinings brand Earl Grey tea leaves

Twinings brand Earl Grey tea leaves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the worst days, a few smells can instantly soothe me — Earl Grey tea, fresh lilacs, pinon, the ocean, dried, sun-warmed pine needles, sweetgrass, Roger & Gallet’s carnation-scented soap, well-worn leather, Balkan Sobranie loose pipe tobacco, a clean dog or horse.

Catholics are accustomed to one of my favorite smells — that of the incense, swung vigorously from a censer, during Mass — which Episcopalians use much less frequently, often deriding its use as “smells and bells.”

Jose and I share an unlikely childhood memory of Maja soap — a favorite of his father, (a Baptist minister in New Mexico) and my mother, (a sophisticated bohemian traveling the world for years.) It was created in 1921, and is Spanish, still made by Myrurgia.

English: Display bottle by PENHALIGON'S, Londo...

English: Display bottle by PENHALIGON’S, London, UK. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wear a British scent created in 1902 for men, Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet, which Burberry designer Christopher Bailey recently named as the smell he’s been wearing since childhood. The bottle is elegant, understated, with a stiff gray grosgrain bow and a little bulbous cap.

As someone working alone at home most of the time, I can (sadly) go for days without putting on nice clothes or make-up.

But I wear scent daily.

Other favorites include Tiempe Passate and Prada Iris.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Re-visiting your past

In aging, behavior, cities, domestic life, History, immigration, life, travel, urban life, US, world on September 8, 2013 at 1:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the challenges of becoming an expatriate — which I did, leaving Canada in 1988 for the U.S. — is leaving behind much of your personal history: the schools you attended, the playgrounds where you skinned your knees, the parks and ravines you walked through with your family, favorite shops, restaurants, libraries or street corners.

I lived in Toronto ages five to 30, so most of my formative and defining memories lie there: first boyfriend, newspaper job,  apartment.

Toronto viewed south from Bloor

Toronto viewed south from Bloor (Photo credit: Small)

It happens when you live far away, even across the country.

Re-visiting my past remains, however silly or nostalgic, important to me. Some of the memories are painful, and I want to re-make them with a happier overlay, while others are pure joy, like once more taking the ferry across Toronto’s harbor, to the islands there, the sun glittering off the water and the gulls circling overhead.

Bliss!

Another well-traveled path I take, and will do so on our current visit north, is down the terrazzo hallways of my old high school.

I’ve been going back there for years as a guest lecturer on writing, speaking to senior students. I was badly bullied there for a few years when I was a student, so it’s a sweet vengeance to be welcomed back as a successful alum.

It’s odd to be there as an adult, not as the eager, excited, nervous young woman I was then, dying to start university and get on with my writing career.

My name is on a wall, lettered in gold in elegant Gothic script, with all the others who won Ontario scholarships, awarded to those with the highest averages in their graduating year. It’s comforting to see my name there, to feel remembered — even if my classmates’ children have already graduated from those same classrooms.

In May 2013, I returned to the Grand Canyon for a four-day trip, camping alone in a tent. I was excited beyond measure to get back there — my last time was June 1994, and I hiked 12 hours in a day, climbing out exhausted and crusted with the salt of my evaporated sweat.

English: view into Grand Canyon from South Rim...

English: view into Grand Canyon from South Rim, Arizona, USA Deutsch: Blick in den Grand Canyon vom Südrand, Arizona, USA Français : vue dans le Grand Canyon du bord sud, Arizona, États-Unis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I wanted to return for another reason, to make that 90-minute drive back to Flagstaff knowing I was coming home to a loving spouse; when I returned from my previous trip, my then-husband walked out for good.

For decades, I’d associated one of the best journeys of my life with one of its most unexpectedly painful moments.

In May 2008, Jose and I traveled to Mexico, back to Cuernavaca, to the apartment building where my mother and I lived when I was 14. I used to walk up the hill to my school, where two tall, narrow windows offered an extraordinary view — one of Popocatapetl, the other Iztaccihuatl, two volcanoes far in the distance.

I used to look out my second-floor window into a field, and assumed it was long since built up and paved over. But it was still a field and our building, at the corner of Copales and Naranjos, appeared unchanged as well.

I wanted to wave to my 14-year-old self, with her waist-length blond hair, listening to Creedence on her record player, and say: “It’s going to be OK. Really.”

My mother suffered a breakdown while we were there; the details too arcane for this blog, but it abruptly and permanently ended my time in her custody, making that apartment and the field and the hill the last place that I lived in her care.

Down the road is a small waterfall, its cul-de-sac filled with plant nurseries. I bought three small pottery palomitas there — unglazed doves — that hang on our balcony in the summer, small, happy memories re-created.

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And, when Jose and I went to visit his hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico, we visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. It has a small courtyard with an apricot tree — the one his late mother used to make jam from.

The museum now stands on the land where his late father’s Baptist church, and their home, once stood.

“This used to be my bedroom,” he said, standing before some exquisite and priceless canvas.

I didn’t know quite what to say.

How sad to never be able see your old haunts.

English: A Areal map of Santa Fe, New Mexico d...

English: A Areal map of Santa Fe, New Mexico during the Railroad era in 1882. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s blogger Dara Clear, eloquent as always — who traded his native Ireland for Australia:

Each one of of us is Homer’s Odysseus, journeying, probing, questing but perhaps ultimately compelled to return to Penelope, to that place of safety, familiarity and love. I am not being literal here, I am not saying we are all the male hero archetype who dutifully returns home to the stoic wife after his manly adventures. My suggestion is that on a profound, primal, ancient level, we are all borne on the same unstated dynamic that is best described as the journey and the return.

We set out on our voyages understanding, or maybe just suspecting, that the journey and its concomitant adventures and challenges, will not be indefinite. There will be an end. There will be a settling. And there will be a return. The return becomes whatever the traveler determines to be home. And home is the place of belonging.

Home can also be the opposite of that, highlighting the sense of not belonging, the sense of otherness. Home then, embodies a strange paradox in that it can be understood as both happy assimilation into place and tribe as well as being one’s concept of defiance, individuality and difference.

From this interpretation we can see how identity is closely connected to home. Are we a product of, or a reaction to where we are from? And what happens if you are dispossessed of a birthright as indelible as belonging? How do you keep your identity if you have no place to which you can return?

And here is Chris Colin’s story from Afar, (a terrific American travel magazine), about going back to West Texas:

There is—I don’t think this would offend anyone—nothing here. The main drag runs past the county courthouse, the old jail, Silverton’s two eateries, and the gas station, which holds a freezer that doubles as the town’s grocery store. The rest of Silverton is shuttered businesses and silent residential streets. The edges of town bleed into the farms and wastelands of Briscoe County…

Silverton may be thimble-size, but the thimble contains multitudes. Nearly every human is kin, for starters. On Main Street one afternoon, Tom waved to an old lady sitting on a front porch, then decided to circle back around and park. It was his mother. We stood on the porch and discussed the tornado that ripped down the street years ago, 21 people killed…

During my week in Texas, my days were spent roaming 21st-century Silverton with my great-uncles. By night I lost myself in its late 19th- and early 20th-century history. I grew up hearing of this microscopic town as a mythically happy and industrious place. My great-grandmother Bethel lived to 98 and told us stories about weekend-long dances, epic horseback rides to school, and the joy of putting on her Sunday best just to stroll Main Street.

Do you ever re-visit places from your childhood or past?

How does it feel when you go back?

The allure of time travel — which century would you choose?

In antiques, art, beauty, behavior, culture, design, education, entertainment, History, life, men, Style, the military, travel, US, war, women on August 24, 2013 at 12:34 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I haven’t yet read this book, by an American author who spent time with some hard-core historical re-enactors who re-make the Civil War on a regular basis.

But we recently had New York City photographer Mike Falco over for dinner. He’s obsessed by the Civil War — an odd pursuit for a Yankee from Staten Island — and has been traveling the U.S. to photograph Civil War battlefields, using a pinhole camera he made himself. 

A pinhole camera requires making long exposures, so that movement is blurred, giving the images a ghostly, timeless feeling.  I love his passion, and his artisanal way of moving backwards in time. He even wears period clothing, and people have greeted him by name as Mathew Brady, the legendary Civil War photographer.

He’s met hundreds of re-enactors, some of them the descendants of the men who fought those battles.

English: American Civil War re-enactors, 1997,...

English: American Civil War re-enactors, 1997, by Rick Dikeman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was extraordinary hearing him describe some of these people and how emotional these encounters and re-enactments are. In the same landscapes, unchanged two centuries on, they’re re-making history, lost in time.

I read a lot of history, for pleasure, hungry to know how we got where we are, politically, economically, philosophically. So I  understand this impulse to try and feel what it might have been like to live 100, 200 or 500 years ago.

I’m intensely curious about what other lives are like — although there is a very large gap between a temporary dress-up fantasy of 19th or 18th century life and living it as it was — without anesthesia, antibiotics or a woman’s right to vote or own property.

I once owned, and wore, a Victorian combing jacket, with its own internal cotton corset. Paisley wool, with drifts of lace and ribbon, it was a glorious garment and I walked very differently when I wore it: more slowly, more deliberately. It was an intimate encounter with the woman who might have worn it then.

For my first wedding, I wore a cotton dress from about 1905, complete with a eyelet underskirt. My maid of honor wore a Victorian dress. I wasn’t trying to be anything or re-create a moment, but had hated every contemporary wedding dress I tried on.

Surprisingly, I felt completely comfortable, and we married in this rivers’s edge chapel from 1840 with no electricity, just a huge chandelier lit with candles.

Here’s a link to the most recent Victorian ball held in Nahant, Massachusetts a week ago, at which guests wore period clothing, much of which they made themselves.

I bet this is part of the fascination with the HBO television series Game of Thrones, which I occasionally watch. And steampunk. I love the Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Canadian actress Rachel McAdams, for their stylish re-creation of period London. The films Moulin Rouge and Ana Karenina did this well, too, although the jewelry worn by Keira Knightley, (Chanel, carefully placed) was entirely wrong for the period. If you’re a historical accuracy maven, it’s fun to see when they get it wrong, or right.

I’ve had two experiences that moved me back in time to the 18th and 19th centuries. One was riding in, and driving, a horse-drawn sleigh through the woods of Quebec, much tougher than it looks!

The other, best week ever, was crewing aboard Endeavour, an Australian replica of a Tall Ship. We slept in narrow, swaying hammocks, climbed the rough rope rigging dozens of times a day to furl enormous, heavy square canvas sails while standing 100 feet in the air on a narrow footrope (just as it sounds.) We handled lines (ropes) so heavy and thick that two of them filled my forearm. I’ve never been more cut, more exhausted or more empathetic to the lives of the men who worked aboard whaling ships and other marine craft. Dangerous as hell!

I fantasize about living in Paris in the 1920s, England in the 1600s, with Elizabeth I on the throne and turn of the 20th century Vienna, when some of my favorite artists — Secessionists like Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele — were alive.

I’d also like to have been a British or American or Canadian woman in the 1940s, when women first poured into the workforce en masse, although the loss of loved ones to WW II would have been terrible to bear.

Red Ensign (pre-1965 Canadian flag)

Red Ensign (pre-1965 Canadian flag) (Photo credit: Lone Primate)

I’m also somehow drawn to Edwardian England. (Hello, Downton Abbey and Parade’s End) but above stairs, please!

Do you ever wish you could time-travel back in history?

Where would you go — and why?

That’s not a birthday — it’s a bloody speed limit!

In aging, beauty, behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, women on June 6, 2012 at 12:13 am

The one in the stripy turtleneck, messy and happy, is me.

Fifty-fecking-five.

I can hear all you young un’s stampeding for the exits.

That old fart? OMG!

But today is my bloody 55th. birthday and the hell with it. Consider the alternative!

I’ve never been happier, and am grateful indeed: loving husband, good health for us both, a new hip and a pain-free life, my Dad still alive and healthy at 83; dear friends; work (finally!) in abundance. Whew!

So, as I celebrate, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned over the past few decades, some words of wisdom,  (aka WOWs).


Love

The greatest love of my life has been the work I chose, writer and photographer. From 12 I knew this was what I wanted to do and I shaped my university studies accordingly, learning French and Spanish well enough to work in both languages, in Montreal, France and Spain. It has not been a smooth and uninterrupted ascent to fame and fortune; I could have made a hell of a lot more money doing almost anything else.

But I know my words have changed lives; one woman wrote to me after I published this medical story, and said it saved her life. No paycheck can beat that.

WOW: Invest the time to find out who you are and what you do best, and in what situations. Find workplaces that allow you to thrive, not merely survive. If you can’t, use your talents and skills as a volunteer, mentor or friend.

My second greatest love has been that of/for my second husband, someone who for years I thought, “Nah, we’ll never make it.” We’re really different! We fought ferociously at first, and, on occasion, still do. But he’s the most affectionate, expressive and loving person I’ve ever met. Lucky me!

WOW: Don’t give up too quickly on a new sweetie, even if it looks a little challenging. Maybe you need to grow into this one. Maybe s/he needs to grow (up) too!

Conflict

Many women, especially, are terrified of it. Get over it. Stand up for your principles. Speak your piece calmly, fairly and confidently. Not everyone will like you. Some people will get angry and rude and attack you. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It just means you’ve pissed them off. Big difference.

WOW: Get comfortable speaking your mind publicly, like — blogging!  You can, and must, also write letters to your elected officials, to newspapers, magazines and blogs you disagree with. Question your teachers and professors. If you never disagree with or question anyone, what’s up with that? Time to reality-check your certainties.

Deception

The first time it happens, you think it will kill you. My first husband, for whom I’d left friends, career and country behind, abandoned me two years after our wedding — and was re-married to his next wife within a year. That hurt like hell.

The first time a client cheated me in my freelance business, I was 19, and stunned. But I did then what I do now — hire a lawyer. Works every time!

WOW:  What role did I play in allowing this?

Grace

This one is huge. As 19th. century British poet Rudyard Kipling put it:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too…

WOW: Bad things will happen to every single one of us: job loss, divorce, illness and death of loved ones, financial or health struggles. A mean boss! An unfaithful lover. Whatever. Try your very best to deal with it calmly and thoughtfully.

Send for help! Hire lawyers. Get second or third medical opinions. Save money so you have breathing room in which to make smart(er) decisions. The ability to remain lucid, centered and helpful will pull you through most shit flying your way. And others you least expect, watching you handle shit gracefully, will help you because they so admire your sangfroid.

No one likes a drama queen. No one.

Money

Nope, there’s never enough — if your desires are insatiable. Save 10-25% or more of your annual income, no matter how broke you feel. Once you have a f–k-you fund and serious retirement savings, you’ve got choices. Without those, you’re toast.

If you don’t save money now, who exactly do you think is going to save your broke ass when you’re old and sick and tired and no one will hire you? It’s no joke.

WOW: That designer handbag or shiny new car won’t pay for chemo or put your kid(s) through college. What are your priorities? Fund them consistently for a life that matters to you, not just one that enriches others.

Friendship

The greatest gift in this lifetime. Nurture your pals through good times and sad. Show up for the funerals of their kids and wives and husbands and parents. Write thank-you notes. Remember their birthdays and favorite flowers or food or wine. Some of them will ditch you. Some of them you’ll outgrow. Others will appear and grow further with you where you are now.

WOW: Never take people for granted. Show them how much they matter to you!

Travel

Go! Today!

Get a passport and beat the hell out of it — only 30 percent of Americans own one, and most of their trips are to Mexico and Canada. I’ve been to 37 countries, (so far), and it’s the best investment I’ve made, even when alone and ill in Venice and Istanbul.

Even better, and tougher, live in another country, culture and language. I lived in London ages 2-5, Mexico at 14, France at 25.  I moved to New York, knowing no one, with no job in sight, when I was 30, leaving my native Canada behind.

All were life-changing, and for the better.

Only by getting out of the comfy, cozy bubble of what you know and like and think is “normal” can you truly realize that all values are relative.

WOW: Especially for women, travel alone is an essential way to gain strength and independence. There are cute boys (and girls) and kind strangers everywhere!

Belief (s)

What are your defining values?

Mine include: ethical behavior, non-stop creativity, curiosity, lots of loud laughter, fierce hugs, loyalty, doing your absolute best, under-promising and over-delivering, sincere apologies. Beauty is everywhere: a bird’s call through the silent woods, a smile from your sweetie, an ancient painting on a gallery or museum wall, the light on the lake at sunrise.

WOW: Find joy in every day. Savor it, share it and celebrate it. Make time to be alone and quiet and reflect on who you are and where you’re headed in life. If you’re unhappy, figure out why and fix it. (Yes, it can be hard.) Cherish the people who nourish, challenge and guide you, in work and play and family and community — and shed the toxic ones. You know who they are.

Health

In your teens, 20s and 30s, you just assume — most of us — that you’ll be healthy. You can work crazy hours, eat crappy food, never take breaks. After the age of 40, it starts to change. After 50, you’re fighting to stay alive to 65, after which, statistically, you’ll make it to your 80s.

WOW: Don’t take fitness for granted. Enjoy and safeguard every bit of health you have. Get your mammograms and teeth cleaned and Pap smears and annual checkups. If your behavior patterns (or others’) are destroying your mental health, find a good therapist. If you “can’t afford” health insurance, cut out every conceivable cost from your life and get some. 

Strength

I think this remains an under-rated quality, especially in young women. Physical strength and stamina will see you through extended periods of work, travel, study, care-giving. Emotional strength will see you through almost any crisis, holding it together so you can make decisions or find wise, trustworthy people to help you make them. Spiritual strength means you’re not some greedy, mean pushover.  Intellectual strength will prove its worth when you skip junk distraction for challenging material and smart companionship. It glows.

WOW: Weakness is deeply unattractive, whether you’re 16 or 66. Weakness demands others rescue you from your own (lousy) choices. Don’t choose to be weak!

Tenacity

How badly do you really want it — the job, the sweetie, that friend, the trip overseas, your Phd, losing all that weight?

Few accomplishments come quickly or easily, and those who give up and walk away too soon cede the field (bye!!!!!) to those of us who keep showing up and take your place. Both of my books, both of which have garnered reviews that made me cry with relief and gratitude, were rejected 25 times. Twenty-five! If my agents had given up….?

WOW: If your goal is too easy, what’s the point? Find coaches and cheerleaders to help you get there. After you arrive, champagne!

Compassion

Without it, we’re just walking bits of meat, getting and spending until we die. In an era of stunning income inequality, of long-term and widespread unemployment, of political gridlock that threatens the very notion of democracy, we must recognize others’ humanity and connection to us and take action. Whenever you shrug and turn away, you deny your best impulses. Be a Big Brother or Sister. Find a volunteer position that feeds your soul. Commit to a life partner who shoves you back onto that path when you stray.

WOW: “I want to be happy” is not a great life’s goal. I want to help others be happy is.

Allies/Enemies

If you, like me, are a strong personality with a few too many opinions, you’re bound to create some enemies along the way. It happens. You’re fine as long as you have allies. Assertive and powerful women especially need them. Enemies aren’t worth fussing over, but don’t be naive about their envy, insecurity and determination to mess you up. (See: allies.)

WOW: In every job, class, workplace, freelance gig, nurture as many relationships as you can.  Receptionists and secretaries are the gatekeepers to power. Stay in touch. Send cards and flowers for special occasions. Write thank-you notes on your personalized stationery with a real pen. Keep a supply of stamps at hand for this purpose.

Character

Such an old-fashioned word. So essential. I decided to marry Jose when we went out to rescue my mother after she was found lying in her bed for days, immobilized by a large brain tumor. Her mattress was soiled. We had to make sense of her condition and deal with her house and dog and doctors, in a few days. Jose didn’t hesitate to leave work, pay thousands of dollars to fly us out overnight, and even scrubbed her soiled mattress.

That’s character.

WOW: You can choose your sweetie and friends because they’re funny and cute and like the same music and food. We all do, especially when we’re younger and life is still mostly fun. But when the shit hits the fan — which starts around age 45, when friends and family begin to sicken and die — character will separate the wheat from the chaff. Character will propel the right people to your side in the chemo suite and the funeral parlor and the NICU. Choose wisely.

Thanks  for being part of Broadside — we’re now 1,463 worldwide.

I’m grateful for your attention and comments.

What a gift!

Sniff! My Favorite Smells

In behavior, culture, design, domestic life, Health, life, nature, women on March 26, 2011 at 2:16 am
Grasse

Grasse, France, home to many delicious smells! Image via Wikipedia

As spring sunshine slowly warms the earth, you can smell the new season. Where I live, in  a small town north of New York City, the pungent and specific odor of fresh wild onion — their thin, bright green sprigs poking up everywhere — is one I look forward to every year.

One of my most powerful scent memories, decades old now, was driving through the North Carolina night down a winding rural road when a huge, delicious whiff of wild jasmine suddenly filled the car. Yum!

Some of my favorite smells:

Good leather

Clean dog

Warm horse

Old wool

Jet fuel (I’m going somewhere!)

Woodsmoke

Balkanie Sobranie pipe tobacco, lit or unlit

Lilacs

Hyacinth

Maja soap, a classic with the most elegant black tissue paper wrapping

Oilliet-Mignardise soap by Roger & Gallet, a spicy smell of carnations. Heaven in a box!

Tiempe Passate, a super-hard-to-find perfume made by New York perfumer Antonia Bellanca

Sun-dried pine needles

1881 cologne, the 1955 classic by Nino Cerruti, the one my sweetie wore the night we met 11 years ago

Cedar

The ocean

Moist earth

A well-made gin martini

Earl Grey tea, freshly steeped (yes, it’s the bergamot)

Grasse, in the south of France, has been a center of the perfume industry for many years and has a museum of scent.

Here’s a link to a Mallorca museum with some rural smells of the past.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Trying To Remember, Hoping To Forget

In animals, behavior, domestic life, family, Health, History, life, travel, Uncategorized on March 12, 2011 at 1:03 am
Build a clock

Image by lisibo via Flickr

Today marks the 14th. annual USA Memory Championship, which pits high school students against one another to see whose brain retains the most. It’s held in Manhattan and open to the public.

What? You forgot?

I recently finished a three-week trip and my camera kept reminding me that its memory card was full, so — on the fly — I’d ruthlessly edit images I didn’t think worth keeping to capture a few more.

Memory is one of our most precious attributes.

One of my favorite films (and also my sweetie’s) is After Life, a Japanese film from 1998 about memory and how precious it is to us. The film’s premise is that, after you die, you will be forced to choose only one memory of all those you have accumulated. Which would you choose?

My mother was diagnosed this year with dementia, and I know it will likely worsen, so memory has become more of an obesssion with me. How much longer will she remember her life, her travels, her friends?

Her only child?

Here’s a new book, wildly and widely reviewed, about memory, “Moonwalking With Einstein” by Joshua Foer.

And what of hideous memories, the ones we so badly want to forget but which, so annoyingly, seem the hardest to get rid of? For me, these would include the night my husband walked out of our brief marriage, for good; the night my beloved red convertible was stolen; watching my Mom (who came out fine) heading into a six-hour neurosurgery…And our memories shift our perceptions, altering how we create and recall new ones.

I stayed on this trip at a resort hotel whose motto is that they create memories, an interesting idea. I brought home several from that trip, perhaps the most indelible being a dog-sledding expedition of about 90 minutes that took us along a tree-lined trail, across a barren, wind-swept frozen lake, alongside a river whose waters were so clear and blue we could see all the way to the bottom.

The dogs kept looking back at us as if to make sure we were still there. Wind clawed at my cheeks so viciously I feared imminent frostbite. A winter sky was as white and impenetrable as the snow on the Rocky Mountains around us.

Unforgettable…

I hope.

What is your most powerful memory and why?

What Will We Leave Behind?

In art, behavior, business, culture, design, domestic life, education, entertainment, History, journalism, life, Media, men, Technology, women on January 15, 2011 at 4:50 am
Michel de Montaigne.

Michel de Montaigne. Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a smart piece that addresses the issue, from The New York Times Magazine:

But increasingly we’re not leaving a record of life by culling and stowing away physical journals or shoeboxes of letters and photographs for heirs or the future. Instead, we are, collectively, busy producing fresh masses of life-affirming digital stuff: five billion images and counting on Flickr; hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos uploaded every day; oceans of content from 20 million bloggers and 500 million Facebook members; two billion tweets a month. Sites and services warehouse our musical and visual creations, personal data, shared opinions and taste declarations in the form of reviews and lists and ratings, even virtual scrapbook pages. Avatars left behind in World of Warcraft or Second Life can have financial or intellectual-property holdings in those alternate realities. We pile up digital possessions and expressions, and we tend to leave them piled up, like virtual hoarders. At some point, these hoards will intersect with the banal inevitability of human mortality. One estimate pegs the number of U.S. Facebook users who die annually at something like 375,000.

I think about this a lot, maybe because I write for a living as a journalist and non-fiction author. I like to think my work will live on for decades or more, stored as it is within the databases of the many newspapers and magazines I’ve written for since the 1970s. I’ve written many personal stories for publication in print: about getting married, getting divorced, returning to church, and know that millions of strangers who have read them, like those who read my blogs, “know” me as a result.

But I don’t have kids or even nephews or nieces, so I also know that all my beloved family photos, and those of my sweetie — my favorite image, being cuddled by his Mom as a baby — will end up as detritus or, maybe, in some flea market bin.

Same with my journals and notebooks, decades of insights and observations. Gone.

But I worry about the loss of all the paper artifacts so many of us now disdain and no longer use — letters sent through the mail and kept, whether love letters or documents — that make up our individual and collective histories.

On the morning of 9/11, one of the most poignant and terrifying artifacts were the burned shreds of paper that floated all the way into my sweetie’s Brooklyn backyard from the fallen Twin Towers: invoices, letterhead, faxes…

Think of all the men and women we’ve come to know only through their letters and journals over the centuries, even milennia, from Herodotus to Pepys, whose diary of daily life from 1660 to 1669 is considered one of of the world’s greatest. I love (geek that I am) Montaigne’s travel journal, from 1580.

One of my favorite songs, Virginia Woolf, by the Indigo Girls captures the profound connections we have with the long-dead through their writing:

They published your diary
And that’s how I got to know you
The key to the room of your own and a mind without end
And here’s a young girl
On a kind of a telephone line through time
And the voice at the other end comes like a long lost friend
So I know I’m all right
Life will come and life will go
Still I feel it’s all right
Cause I just got a letter to my soul
And when my whole life is on the tip of my tongue
Empty pages for the no longer young
The apathy of time laughs in my face
You say each life has it’s place

The hatches were battened
The thunderclouds rolled and the critics stormed
The battle surrounded the white flag of your youth
If you need to know that you weathered the storm
Of cruel mortality
A hundred years later I’m sitting here living proof

What will you leave behind?

Does it matter?

Painful Memories? Take This Drug

In behavior, business, Crime, culture, design, Health, mecicine, Medicine, news, science on January 6, 2011 at 3:48 pm
Overview Memory

Image via Wikipedia

Would life be better if we could erase our most painful memories?

I can think of many I’d be — literally — happier without: two horrible Christmas Eves; the night my ex-husband walked out for good; a few really terrifying and unsuccessful job interviews.

We’ve all got some, scarred for life and sometimes truly hampered by their lingering effects.

It may become possible, says one American scientist, who may have found a way to do it.

Reports Bloomberg BusinessWeek:

The experiment proved that [certain] proteins are essential to building the brain circuitry that forms a memory, and to recalling the memory later. “It’s a huge step forward,” says Joseph E. LeDoux, a professor at New York University and an authority on memory and emotions.

Huganir and Clem are now experimenting with a drug that removes AMPARs and could prevent memories from forming in the first place. They hope to publish the results next year, and Huganir says that in as little as a decade the research could lead to drugs that help people forget painful experiences. Blocking AMPARs won’t erase the entire memory of an event, says Huganir, but it would eliminate the strong emotions attached to it. That could be a game-changer for the nearly 8 million American adults with post-traumatic stress disorder. Huganir says he regularly gets e-mails from PTSD sufferers asking to be part of human drug trials if and when he holds them. His research may also lead to drugs that aid memory retention by stimulating AMPARs, a potential boon for test takers and Alzheimer’s patients.

Would we all be better off without our sad or traumatic memories?

What if we did get rid of them?

How would we behave differently?

Six (Of Many) Challenges Of Writing Memoir

In Media on January 25, 2010 at 9:08 am
Memory (1896). Olin Warner (completed by Herbe...

A statue of memory...Image via Wikipedia

On the long-running listserv WriterL, populated by everyone from eager fresh grads to Pulitzer winners, we’ve been chewing over the many practical challenges of writing a memoir.

I’m halfway through mine, and am finding it challenging on many levels. It’s a totally different animal from my first book, which includes 104 original interviews from 29 states, five of which I visited.

This book relies on my ability to recall, describe and make compelling my own experiences and feelings and those of others. This time, I’m living inside my head, reporting my own life and that of about 20 other people.

Anyone hoping to write a memoir faces many challenges. Here are some the ones I’m now grappling with:

1) Other, real people become your characters. Many times the writer must do this, or chooses to do this, without asking their permission, no matter how much they reveal about these people. If they are alive, you have to find a way to be truthful to your experience of/with them without — or does this matter? — destroying their affection or respect for you.

When you change their names or identifying details, do the new ones help the reader or confuse them? Which of their qualities are most germane to your narrative?

If they are dead, are you free(r) to say whatever you wish?

2) It’s your memory. Is it reliable? Walt Harrington, a terrific writer, has said he carefully re-reports his own life; if he writes that Tuesday November 13, 1973, (I’m not sure it was a Tuesday, but he would be), was cold and cloudy, raining later that afternoon, he goes back to check the weather reports. Every writer, potentially, can fact-check his or her impressions by confirming them with others — if this is part of your plan. You may not want others’ input and it may not be gettable any other way. Then you’re on your own, unless you took detailed and copious notes or (unlikely) have audio, film, video recordings or other documentation for reference.

3) Our memories are clouded by emotion. One of the arguments made about recall is that traumatic events are more clearly embedded in our brains than others more banal. Can you remember last Wednesday’s lunch? How about your wedding day? The day your first child was born or the death of a loved one? What emotions are clouding or coloring these memories? Are they accurate? How would you know for sure?

4) Describing and conveying emotion is difficult. Maybe not for some, but as a certified WASPy Canadian (i.e. not someone who’s wild about emotional displays or drama), I find this especially challenging. A memoir without emotion is a meal without cutlery — you can get get through it, but it’ll be hard work and not terribly enjoyable. I wonder if writing memoir, then, comes more easily to more confessional cultures or generations; Americans, much to the consternation of more buttoned-up natives, often seem very at ease telling total strangers a lot of very personal detail.

Perhaps today’s teens and 20-somethings, sexting and posting on-line videos and details of their most intimate lives, would find this “challenge” absurd.

Yet, no one wants to read 75,000 or 100,000 words of pure confessional. It’s not a race to emotional nudity, stripping bare to the goriest and most salacious details reallyfast. Which are the most powerful? Says who? Like any great story, yours must also contain suspense, structure, conflict, resolution. It’s not just a matter of publishing your raw, unedited diary or a big pile of blog posts.

5) Which bits of this life you’re telling are most compelling, not to you, but to your readers? Why? After I’d written what I thought was a really great chapter, I shared it with my partner, who is not a writer but a fellow journalist and someone whose opinion I trust. “You can do better,” he said. Ouch.

It may have sliced you to your core the day your French or math professor laughed at you in front of your 7th-grade classmates — or whatever — but this moment, like every single one, must pass the “Who cares?” test. If it isn’t making a powerful or larger point, include it at your peril.

6) Which “you” is telling this story? I heard someone on NPR recently make a great point: once you’ve got the tone for your memoir, you’re good to go. Without it, you’re wandering aimlessly, no matter how great your raw material. I think of every memoirist, now myself as well, as simply one more character within the narrative, albeit the narrator. But we all have many facets and colors to our personality or character. None of us is 100% funny or calm or outraged or sad all the time, while the reader needs a consistent, persuasive voice in order to enter and follow your path.

I was one of those who really enjoyed “Eat, Pray, Love”, the much-lauded memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert of her global journey. I liked her authorial “voice” and trusted she would tell me a good story, and she did. For every reader who loved it, there are many who found her whiny or tedious or self-involved.

It is memoir. It is about you and what you’ve seen, heard and felt; that’s an inherent risk every author must take. It demands rigorous self-editing and fantastic help from your first readers and your editor.

Two of my favorite memoirs, oddly perhaps, are both of their African lives by British writers: “When A Crocodile Eats The Sun”, by Peter Godwin and “Let’s Not Go To The Dogs Tonight“, by Alexandra Fuller. Both are filled with sensual details — one smells Africa in their sentences — but also limn powerful, dark stuff. Godwin opens with a description of cremating his father and talks about his sister’s murder; Fuller’s life was spent in the care of a somewhat crazed mother in a foreign place, far from any possible rescue.

From this week’s New Yorker, by Daniel Mendelsohn:

This awkward blurring of the real and the artificial both parallels and feeds off another dramatic confusion: that between private and public life. The advent of cell phones has forced millions of people sitting in restaurants, reading on commuter trains, idling in waiting rooms, and attending the theatre to become party to the most intimate details of other people’s lives—their breakups, the health of their portfolios, their psychotherapeutic progress, their arguments with their bosses or boyfriends or parents. This experience of being constantly exposed to other people’s life stories is matched only by the inexhaustible eagerness of people to tell their life stories—and not just on the phone. The Internet bears crucial witness to a factor that Yagoda discusses in the context of the explosion of memoirs in the seventeenth century (when changes in printing technology and paper production made publication possible on a greater scale than before): the way that advances in media and means of distribution can affect the evolution of the personal narrative. The greatest outpouring of personal narratives in the history of the planet has occurred on the Internet; as soon as there was a cheap and convenient means to do so, people enthusiastically paid to disseminate their autobiographies, commentaries, opinions, and reviews, happily assuming the roles of both author and publisher.

So if we’re feeling assaulted or overwhelmed by a proliferation of personal narratives, it’s because we are; but the greatest profusion of these life stories isn’t to be found in bookstores. If anything, it’s hard not to think that a lot of the outrage directed at writers and publishers lately represents a displacement of a large and genuinely new anxiety, about our ability to filter or control the plethora of unreliable narratives coming at us from all directions. In the street or in the blogosphere, there are no editors, no proofreaders, and no fact-checkers—the people at whom we can at least point an accusing finger when the old-fashioned kind of memoir betrays us.

True?

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