The screen saver on my computer is a continually revolving door of the pictures in my digital photo library. Sometimes an image arises and pulls me into such strong “déjà vu” that I am carried back to that exact moment in time. A photo from several years ago opened on the screen recently. I paused, after it flashed by, to reflect on the moment a very young child learned to adapt with resilience and her own brand of spunk.
We were living in Paris, France when our granddaughter, Leila, who had just turned one-year-old, was left in our care for a four-day weekend. Our son and daughter-in-law, who met and fell in love in London, were attending the wedding of close friends there.
Leila was an active, walking toddler with strong attachments to her parents, particularly her mother. She had never been in the care of a babysitter or day care since her birth in California in 2016. Although we were living overseas at the time she was born, we had been together many times in both the U.S. and France. But she was a baby. And we were not her parents.
Anticipating separation anxiety even in the care of loving grandparents, I had suggested [several times] that the parents try some outside babysitting with other caregivers before leaving her with us in an unfamiliar environment in Paris. Well…
Our son flew directly to London on business before pleasure. Daughter-in-law and Leila flew to Paris first and were embraced by my husband and me in our Parisian apartment. Mother and daughter settled easily into the guest suite, and we spent a fine two days establishing routines and exploring the neighborhood. Then, early on the third morning, Mama left to catch a train to the UK. Seeing her mother descend on the elevator with a suitcase, life shifted dramatically in Leila’s experience.
This little girl cried herself into a state of exhaustion that resulted in an unusual morning nap. When she awoke, still inconsolable, it was time to mix things up. I called in reinforcements. My friend, Sally, came over. We went to a nearby park with a large sandpit playground. Sally and I watched Leila explore the play equipment, get dirty with digging toys, and sit with independently playing French children. Sad eyes throughout, but no tears. Home to lunch, an early bath, and second nap ending in the late afternoon.
Then an epiphany.
Hearing that she was awake, I went to the bedroom. Leila was sitting up, wearing an uncertain face, as she watched me open the door. It seemed another round of tears was about to begin.
And then something happened that I will never forget. While I spoke to her quietly, Leila looked at me, still in the doorway, briefly closed her eyes and visibly shook herself. From head to toe. As if, by shaking, she was able to transport herself to a new place. As if, intuitively, saying, “I will shift gears. Right now.” In the eight hours since her mother left, an emotional switch turned. She emerged from complete misery to a different way of seeing things.
Leila reached out her arms to me. And I witnessed true grit in a little girl who visibly changed her perspective because she needed to, and then wanted to. Yes, adaptability is a trait in tiny people, too.
The next three days unfolded seamlessly. The daily park adventure was an anticipated and engaging outing. At home, we watched my revolving computer photos and talked about the people she recognized. Mommy and Daddy, Donk and DeeDee [Mark and me], herself as a younger baby. She imitated my yoga moves. We danced.
There were sweet moments of playtime in the bathtub, bedtime songs and stories, and hiding in the dining room curtains in a funny game of hide and seek with Leila certain that she was invisible. There were trips to the toy store and stops for coffee and snacks at our market street café. At a sidewalk table we watched the world go by and then explored the pedestrian street.
By the time Leila’s parents returned, a life lesson in trust and love and flexibility had been established. She was fine. We were fine. Back on the scene, witnessing their daughter’s smile and welcoming hugs, the parents were fine, too.
Adaptability is a step above resilience in human temperament. It takes behavioral and emotional coping skills to adjust to new circumstances. In the ever-changing situations of life, learning to adapt as quickly as possible, ideally with support from others, is vital developmental know-how. Leila hit the first mile marker.
As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Grandparents and grandchildren each need to find a way to create and live in their own special harmony. Young children can, and do, adapt when facing new or unfamiliar situations. But they need to figure things out in their own way and time. Successfully adapting and overcoming challenges, particularly at a young age, lays the groundwork for all that lies ahead in life.
When I see a photo of that memorable visit flash by on the computer screen, I relive the story of a beloved granddaughter who found the ability, within herself, to emotionally change at a tender age. In doing so, she grew. And thrived.
It happened right before my eyes. Simply unforgettable.
The fact that I, myself, do not understand what my paintings mean while I am painting them does not imply that they are meaningless. –Salvador Dalí, Spanish surrealist artist
Years ago, a man named John Filer, found this quote by Dalí, and taped it to his wife’s easel because it reminded him of her work. His wife, Jane Filer, is an artist. She has been expressing herself through painting since she was a small child. In Kindergarten, Jane went to the standing easel during free time and painted a new picture every day the entire school year.
Today, Jane’s acrylic-on-canvas paintings carry the ethereal quality of an imaginative dream. Among overlaying colors, images materialize and hold one’s gaze. It’s impossible not to feel something and find meaning.
I wasn’t aware of Jane Filer or anything about her portfolio until I visited a friend in Boulder, Colorado more than a year ago. In her living room, there was a painting over the sofa that pulled me closer. It felt like looking into someone’s multi-layered dream. Even one of my own dreams. I wanted to know more. My friend, Cathy, told me it was painted by a woman named Jane Filer. She bought it from a gallery on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
My husband and I were already planning a road trip to New Mexico the upcoming weekend. Good road trips offer new discoveries and lasting memories. What I didn’t expect as an outcome was friendship with an artist whose work I greatly admire.
Jane Filer was the middle child of four siblings–two older brothers, two younger sisters. Born on the coast of California, her accountant father moved the family to Australia for several years when she was 11. While living there, Jane gained appreciation for and inspiration from aboriginal art–particularly the strong colors and detailed, organic nature of the paintings.
As a child, Jane’s mother told her she had an “overactive imagination”. It was not meant as a compliment. Rather, Jane was endlessly criticized and berated as a “disappointment” for not being practical enough. She turned her creative energies and vivid imagination toward her younger sisters, making up stories and songs to entertain them. Eventually she was nurtured by a paternal aunt. Drawing came naturally before Jane entered school. And then she discovered the magic of a paint brush in her hand.
Before we drove to Santa Fe, I called Bill Hester, Jane’s art dealer at the time. We were coming to look at everything he had of her work. Bill spent a lot of time with us as we strolled the gallery, asking good questions, explaining Jane’s painting method along with his personal view on poetry, metaphor, and art.
My husband and I considered each painting individually and then circled back to speak together privately. One piece resonated with both of us. It was entitled Elephant’s Journey and reminded us of our years living overseas and the adventures we experienced as a family, in five countries for more than thirty years. Elephant’s Journey touched a mutual chord. The elephants are marching in line toward a cliff, but it is not catastrophic. We saw it as the poem for a risk we chose to live.
Jane’s family returned to the U.S. from Australia and settled in the Midwest. With encouragement from her mentoring aunt, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Southern Illinois University. After graduating, she met her husband, John Filer, who was five years older and worked in forestry. For many years, while John planted trees all over America, they travelled and lived simply in a camping trailer with national and state forests as their backyard.
At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Jane was offered a coveted spot in the art college, working toward her Master of Fine Arts. She began teaching painting and drawing for the next 21 years. In 1986, John and Jane bought 17 acres of woods and began to build their first real home. Much of the construction was accomplished by their own creative hands.
As she was about to turn 50, Jane left teaching, which she dearly loved, to devote herself full-time to painting. John, now retired from forestry, became her manager, counselor, and confidence builder. When Jane expressed self-doubt or struggled with difficult decisions, John would simply look at her and say, “Why are you asking me? You don’t need anyone’s advice. You’re Jane Filer!”
Ten years ago, Jane’s selling gallery expanded from Chapel Hill to Santa Fe, which is, the second largest art market in the world after New York City.
Six months after purchasing Elephant’s Journey, I returned to Santa Fe to view another Filer painting I had seen on the gallery’s website. But I was immediately distracted by a larger piece that had just arrived from Jane’s North Carolina studio the day before. Unwrapped, on the floor, it was leaning against the wall. I studied it silently and knew I could look at this painting every day for the rest of my life. It is called Eclipse.
There are figures falling out of the sky, there are swimming figures, there is a grove of trees whose roots feed an underground river, with a tent and a lone camper above. There is water running through it and a full regatta of sailboats off on one side. The colors blend into a beautiful meditation even without the imagery. When I look at this painting, I continue to discover something new. It joined Elephant’s Journey in our living room.
Jane Filer is a happy-by-nature-extrovert with a warm, engaging smile, a tumble of spiraling blond curls, and twinkling blue eyes. I met her in person on my next visit to Santa Fe where she was painting for two weeks as “artist in residence” at the Hester gallery. Jane is an open communicator who simply loves people. Even people she meets for the first time.
I am fascinated with life, light, love, and fear. –Jane Filer
We fell into conversation easily, starting with the psychology of being an artist. Jane told me that being off balance and a bit fearful is critical to her paintings. Dark and light, yin and yang are expressed in metaphoric imagery. She doesn’t explain what the imagery means. She doesn’t like repetition, but certain themes recur. Her connection with Nature in the form of animals, faces, figures, water, flowers, trees, are part of the story on canvas. There is often architecture, discernable buildings or shelters painted in, too. Because Jane considers art her therapy as well as a way of life, she is fearless about entering what she calls her dark side. She believes painting fills a need to dig deeply into life’s challenges and, by doing so, keeps her healthy.
After the Santa Fe meeting, we continued talking over the phone. Then Jane invited me to visit her studio/home in the woods of North Carolina. John Filer passed away prematurely several years ago. After he died, she hired the finishing work on the house to her specifications. I found everything about it to be an extension of her naturalness, her love of nature, and living close to the earth.
The first thing I noticed were collections everywhere. Rocks and geodes, jars and bottles, shells and bones, antique Indian artifacts–axe heads and arrowheads. There are faces that Jane has collected, sculpted, or painted. The furniture invites curling up to talk or muse on the green expanse of forest outside or to sit by the wood burning stove inside. The kitchen was one of my favorite indoor spaces. John built the wooden dish rack above an antique cast iron sink he found in the woods. It’s an efficient way to dry and store hand washed dishes. Jane designed the tile back drop over the stove and sink. The L-shaped counter invites sitting over morning coffee, talking to whoever is cooking, or sipping single malt whisky and more conversation in late afternoon. There are vignettes of photos, paintings, and artifacts tucked into wall niches or on windowsills.
I can’t write songs and I can’t write stories, but I can paint. –Jane Filer
Observing an artist in their studio space is definitely zeroing in on their personal reality. Because Jane told me she dreams and/or has visions while she works, I assumed that, like writers, her working time is largely introspective, solitary, and quiet. In fact, life in the Filer studio can be just the opposite. There might be loud music and singing, phone calls and conversations. There is another artist, Michele Yellin, who paints with her, their easels set side by side. When I tried to retreat to my room to give her time to work, Jane invited me into the studio to talk while she painted. As I poked around looking at artifacts that caught my eye and asking questions, she transferred color, imagery, and texture to the canvas. Jane multi-tasks and dreams while awake.
We dream all day long. –Jane Filer
To begin a new piece, Jane sits at her easel thinking quietly before reaching for paint and covering the canvas edge to edge in colors. She moves color around abstractly until layers and shapes suggest composition. It is free-falling. When patterns and colors start to feel exciting, she sketches over the abstract with fine charcoal lines. A language is developing, the beginning of a story emerges in her mind. She feels anticipation and energy about what comes next.
The next phase, moving from the abstract to the middle composition, is what Jane calls “The Hairy Middle”. It is the longest part of her painting method and often uncomfortable. Because in the “hairy part” she does a deep dive, directly facing what she likes and dislikes, and more importantly what she fears. There is collective unconscious to whatever bubbles up in this middle moment. The painting has become its own entity. Jane moves it further into existence by working through her emotions until she is on the other side. Her imagination stretches to completion, heads to an ending.
Jane can work on more than one painting at a time. She sets aside something that needs time to mature and starts a new canvas or goes back to an earlier one. She adds texture and shape with pieces of bubble wrap or corrugated cardboard, pressing them into paint and then onto the canvas. She might use a knife edge along with brush strokes to create depth. There are finely drawn outlines around imagery. The color palate is vibrant and rich. Yet the finished painting may have morphed numerous times from the original color scheme.
For art to be complete, it must be let go–sent off into the world. –Jane Filer
Jane considers her paintings to be her offspring. They are born and nurtured on canvas. They are not meant to be literal, but rather offer an invitation to find personal meaning. Intuition tells her when each one is finished. Then she lets it go to stand on its own in the world.
I sent Jane a photo of her two paintings on our living room wall and invited her to come see them in person. Four months later, at the end of October, Jane and her friend, Michele Yellin, drove across the country and made Colorado their first stop.
It snowed all night after they arrived. We woke to a white wonderland in the morning. It didn’t stop us from driving into Rocky Mountain National Park and having lunch at the historic Stanley Hotel.
The best things in life cannot be told. –Heinrich Zimmer, German linguist and historian
That is to say, it is difficult to describe art that exists outside the reach of words. But this is the very essence of it, too. Art is created to inspire emotions and depth of feeling that are simply beyond description.
I think this is what it means to be in the presence of Filer art. What begins as a dream or vision in Jane’s metaphysical mind, gains momentum in color and imagery on canvas, and opens a poetic portal to both lose and find yourself at the same time.
I am inspired by this circle of connectedness–a painting in another’s living room, an art gallery in Santa Fe, two paintings in our home that enrich us every day, back and forth visits with an artist whose life began as a girl with an overactive imagination and is now my friend.
That’s being Jane Filer.
Current information about Jane’s art, both painting and sculpture, can be found on her website: www.janefiler.com
Subcultures are made up of people who share a passion about a specific interest that is often stereotyped. Hippies, bikers, skate boarders, NASCAR racers, bird watchers, body builders, punk rockers, break dancers, to name a few. Recently, I learned about an American subculture that has been around since 1992 but escaped my attention for a couple of reasons–geography and interest.
We were living in Cyprus and Taiwan in the 1990s, and I was involved in learning quirky details about other cultures rather than paying attention to what was going on in my home country. Also, the subculture I recently witnessed in California was about 180 degrees outside of my normal interests. Possibly because it involves five and six-ton vehicles doing impossible tricks–jumping in the air, spinning donuts, flipping over, standing on two wheels, and racing in circles. It is a competitive spectator sport of huge trucks with notorious names and drivers. This is Monster Jam.
While visiting a four-year-old grandson who is obsessed with cars, trucks, and trains–basically anything with rotating wheels, I was notified by his father that we would be attending a Monster Jam rally with the entire family on Sunday afternoon. I watched a YouTube video that told me, “If you don’t know what Monster Jam is, you are a certified city slicker.”
Monster Jam is a live motorsport event under the auspices of U.S. Hot Rod Association, based primarily in North America. The Monster Truck series is the longest running and most successful competition of big trucks in the last 30 years.
Monster Trucks are special off-road vehicles with heavy duty suspension, 4-wheel steering, and oversized tires. The tires are a monstrous 66 inches tall and 43 inches across. Each truck is built like “an engineered fighter jet airplane” but only used for competitive entertainment. They cost $250,000.
The drivers work on teams, performing in seasonal rallies that tour the U.S. with famously known and named vehicles–Grave Digger, Son-uva Digger, Zombie, Whiplash, El Toro Loco, Megalodon, or Jurassic Attack. Currently, there are 14 female Monster Truck drivers in a predominantly male circuit. All driving teams are salaried and receive no prize money.
Monster Jam is one of the safer driving sports. Drivers are protected from head to toe in custom-made fire-resistant suits, helmets, and gloves. They are completely strapped in with head, neck, and body support. When a truck flips upside down or catches fire, most drivers walk away unscathed.
It’s very LOUD when turbo-charged engines rev up and grind away in competitive stunts for several hours. Grandchildren six-year-old Leila and four-year-old Archie wore protective headsets with flashing lights over their ears. We stuffed orange and white foam plugs tightly into each ear canal. The arena was packed with fans of all shapes and sizes, ages, and genders, defying stereotypes. Families, couples, and singles gathered for the same purpose, waiting for their favorite Monster truck to take center stage and perform.
And so, the show began.
Exactly on starting time, overhead lights dimmed. Multiple Monster trucks vroomed into the stadium flashing headlights, painted in bold designs. The first competition was racing around in a circle. Followed by the Two-Wheel event where each truck has two attempts to show their strongest skills on two wheels, either front or back. Drivers could choose to spin in a whirlwind of donut dust as an alternative in this category. The final competition was Freestyle, where trucks showcase any, or all, of their abilities in timed competition from ramp jumps and diving, flips, or wheelies.
Like any subculture, Monster Jam has its own vocabulary. Cyclones are high speed donuts. Doing an endo is not cool. This is where the truck does a front-end rollover and crashes. Pagos are good and applauded loudly. It means doing a wheelie and bouncing forward on the rear tires. In contrast, riding the wave is bouncing up and down while standing precariously on the front tires. The hot shoe is the top driver who scores the most points overall. Grave Digger driver, of course.
During our show, the lone female driver attempted a flip…but failed. The indoor venue was a bit small for this maneuver, but she was the only one who tried. Then had to be rescued from sitting on her head by a massive crane that re-righted her machine. She emerged smiling and waving to the cheering crowd. And won the Freestyle event.
It’s a formula that works and has gained popularity over the decades. For adult spectators, large-can beer drinking is involved. For children, sticky blue and pink cotton candy from a bag is preferred. For any age, heavily breaded chicken nuggets and french fries smothered in ketchup. American dining not at its finest. But this is Monster Jam!
We said “yes” to it all and were caught in the uplifting atmosphere of a new experience. It was about participating in the enjoyment of a boy who knows the names of all the big trucks and has a fine collection of them at home. He owns this subculture, for now.
Here’s to boys and girls everywhere who love to push, [even across the street on the way to breakfast] or drive, big wheels that go around and around and sometimes even upside down.
Monster Jam. Know what it is. Don’t be a city slicker.
When living in France, as we did for eight years, you learn there is no such thing as Bastille Day. Instead, “la Fête nationale” or “le 14 juillet” is the national public holiday celebrated on July 14 everywhere in France and in many places around the world. The date is never changed to make it convenient to a long weekend. It’s that important. Like 4th of July, Christmas Day, and New Years’ eve.
The 14th of July is the anniversary of the beginning of the revolution when the common people revolted against their king, Louis XVI, and the French aristocracy. In 1789, economic conditions in France were in crisis and tensions were nearing a breaking point. People were fed up and unable to afford daily bread.
The Bastille was a medieval fortress-prison that held political prisoners with no hope of pardon or freedom. It was also thought to contain munitions and gun powder. A crowd of angry citizens stormed inside the Bastille, freed the few [only 7 at the time] who were imprisoned, but found no guns. It was a compelling action and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 2010, we were living on the 5th floor of a small apartment building in Paris’ 7th arrondissement, on avenue de la Motte Picquet. Tall multi-paned windows opened like full length doors onto the street below. There was a direct view of the top third of the Eiffel Tower in the park of Champs de Mars. For five minutes every night, at the top of the hour, from dark until midnight we watched thousands of lights twinkling on la Tour Eiffel. It charmed our guests and was a spectacular display we never tired of during two years in the neighborhood.
What we did tire of was perpetual plumbing problems ancient apartment buildings in Paris are prone to. It’s all part of 19th century architectural charm. But still. Leaks from above dripped through our ceilings and light fixtures or down walls. After a middle of the night broken pipe in the wall of our unit flooded apartments one and two floors below, it was time to try our luck elsewhere in the city.
But for two summers, living near the Champs de Mars, we adventurously celebrated la Fête nationale far above the crowds amassed for the fireworks display along the river Seine. With the best seats in town.
French neighbors who lived in the apartment above ours shared the idea because they said the entire building would be deserted by early evening. And they weren’t going to try it themselves.
There was a tiny one-person-sized elevator in the back of the building that accessed 7th floor apartments. These “chambres de bonne” were maid’s quarters in another century. But in this century they made for inexpensive living, like a one room studio. The ceiling in the hallway of 7th floor had a trap door to the roof eight floors above the street.
By removing the ladder attached to the wall and climbing up to the hinged glass door, it was possible to unlatch and fold it back onto the metal roof. We came prepared. One backpack carried chilled champagne and glass flutes, crudités, and salty snacks. Another held big camera equipment. This was not a party for cell phone photography.
We gingerly situated ourselves on the angled roof near some chimney stacks and away from the sloping edge, set up the picnic, toasted a new adventure, waited for darkness and the show to begin.
We had a bird’s eye top-of-the-world view, albeit a bit precarious. Tiptoeing back up the roof and descending the ladder was another intrepid experience, but no one was the wiser. For two memorable years we managed to enjoy le 14 juillet festivities with a private rooftop party in magnificent Parisian scenery.
I’m reminded this week, on July 14, of the sacrifices French citizens made 233 years ago to spur change and move an entitled monarchy to a democratic republic for all.
Walking down a street off the square in Taos, New Mexico, I noticed an adobe building with a colorful door set back off the sidewalk. The name, El Rincón, caught my eye because a friend in Colorado had mentioned buying interesting turquoise jewelry there. Opening the bright blue painted door, I didn’t immediately realize I was entering the domain of a family saga that began more than 100 years ago. But I would soon learn that the maverick who started it all was named Ralph Waldo Emerson Meyers.
On that afternoon, Estevan Castillo, grandson of Ralph Meyers, greeted me from behind an antique display cabinet. Estevan has dark, curly, gray-flecked-hair and a gentle, soft spoken demeanor. He is a musician, a talented silversmith jeweler, and the owner of El Rincón, known as the oldest trading post in Taos. More importantly, he is “Contador de historias”, the teller and keeper of family stories.
Old wooden display cases with deeply scratched glass countertops drew me in right away. Some were filled with vintage “pawn” turquoise and silver. My appreciation for one-of-a-kind jewelry art has roots in a small cottage business I started when we lived overseas. For several years, I designed and sold ethnic necklaces and earrings made from beads, stones, and silver collected around the world.
Questions I asked Estevan were answered with stories. About bead strands collected and worn by his grandmother Rowena Meyers, artifacts made by Indians in his grandfather’s time, a photo of Estevan in the shop as a boy cutting holes in silver beads, one of his grandmother’s buckskin dresses hanging on the wall. I wanted to know more.
El Rincón first opened as the Mission Shop, an Indian curio store started by Ralph Meyers in the early part of the last century. Now it spans three generations. The evolution and survival of Taos’ oldest trading post is as remarkable as the museum quality Native American art and artifacts Meyers traded and sold. Some of his collections are now in the Smithsonian and Guggenheim Museums.
The history begins with a young man’s all-consuming passion to live his life in the “old west” of more than 100 years ago. And his desire to paint pictures of Indians. The history is best divided in two parts–during and after the life of Ralph Meyers.
PART ONE–The Ralph Meyers Years
Born in 1885, Ralph Waldo Emerson Meyers grew up in Denver, Colorado. He was a disinterested student and dropped out of school after third grade. But he was an avid learner with keen listening skills. He hung onto stories told by “old timers” of his era. Stories of Indians and rugged geographic beauty and remote life in the west. Even without formal art training, he wanted to make paintings of Indians in their environment. He talked easily to everyone which made him adept at turning relationships into friendships. And so, with a head full of stories, good communication skills, and an innate ability to teach himself anything, Meyers took off for rural New Mexico.
He worked as a fire guard for one year with the U.S. Forestry Service, stationed near Blue Lake, north of Taos. Blue Lake is sacred ceremonial ground for the Taos Pueblo Indians, worshiped as the source of life for the irrigation of their land. [See *End Notes]
Meyers lived a hermit’s life that year, but he connected personally with the Pueblo people and began trading with them. After several years of collecting Indian artifacts throughout the west and southwest he settled permanently in Taos, and the Mission Shop trading post opened for business.
Ralph Meyers was an outlier. He was the first white man to make social and professional relationships with the secluded Pueblo-dwelling Indians around Taos. Initially, the trading post highlighted Native American pottery, rugs, jewelry, baskets, buckskin, moccasins, and ceremonial beadwork. Then, as a self-taught oil painter, Meyers began displaying his own work. He was part of the emerging artist colony of Taos in the 1920s and ‘30s. Other creative people arrived–painters, photographers, and writers. Many were captivated by the beauty of the landscape, the simple unhurried pace of life, and they stayed.
He was drawn into the close circle of friends that wealthy New York art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan brought to the area–painter Georgia O’Keefe, writer D.H. Lawrence, photographer Ansel Adams, heiress and jewelry designer Millicent Rogers, Russian emigré and portrait painter Nicolai Fechin. Hollywood actors, musicians, and other artists cycled through Taos. Ralph Meyers knew them all. His ability to sustain trusted friendships across Indian and Spanish-American cultures, socio-economic status, gender, and notoriety contributed to his stature as a leading citizen.
Ralph Meyers was a mountain guide, business entrepreneur, and a Renaissance man of his generation. By observing other artists, he taught himself to oil paint. He learned to be a skilled silversmith, made his own tools, and created beautiful jewelry. He took up furniture making and wood carving in the Spanish colonial style. He taught himself leather working and beading. He learned to spin, dye, and weave wool blankets in the traditional ways. He trained and hired Indians to make jewelry, hand-bead moccasins, buckskin garments, and ceremonial ornaments in his shop. They were paid fair market prices which further engendered loyalty.
Then came family life. Rowena Matteson, born in Pennsylvania in 1909, moved to the Taos area as a child. She was engaged to an employee in The Mission Shop while she was a teenager. That relationship faded and another bloomed. Rowena married Ralph Meyers in 1933. He was 48. She was 24. Two children were born. Daughter Nina and son Ouray became artist/painters.
A rattlesnake bite through his thumbnail was the beginning of Meyers’ demise. He saw what he thought was a dead snake hanging in a tree and began swinging it around to entertain friends. It doubled back and bit him. There was no anti-venom treatment. After a debilitating infection and illness he died in 1948 at the age of 63.
For more than 36 years Ralph Meyers was a trusted icon in Taos and Pueblo communities. He was introspective with an extrovert’s personality. He had demons too. Mainly alcohol, which fueled angry and sometimes destructive behavior. One night, under the influence of whiskey, he took 30 of his paintings and set them on fire.
He loved his children but was self-absorbed by an extreme need to create or build or paint something every day. He was not remembered as a nurturing father. Rowena filled the gap.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Meyers was an unconventional man who loved Native American culture as an outsider but found his way inside the New Mexican Pueblo community. An original western icon who listened, learned, and bridged cultures with a legacy lasting long after a snake bite.
PART TWO–The Mission Shop becomes El Rincón
After Meyers’ death, Rowena closed the trading post, moved away, and leased the space to The Taos Bookshop for the next twenty years.
She returned in 1970, in a second marriage with another son, and moved into a house behind The Taos Bookshop. There she opened El Rincón [“the hidden corner”, in Spanish] to showcase jewelry, costumes, and artifacts acquired from continued trading. When the bookstore owners vacated the trading post building, Rowena moved back into the larger space and added a museum. The name El Rincón remained.
Eventually Rowena’s home became La Doña Luz Inn, a bed and breakfast started with daughter Nina in 1985. The building has been extensively renovated with new additions designed and built by Paco Castillo, Nina’s middle son. When Nina died in 2007, La Doña Luz was Paco’s inheritance. Nina’s vivid paintings can be seen throughout the inn in the form of colorful folk art kitchen cabinets, bathroom murals, and kiva fireplace surrounds. It’s a lovely historic building, rich in family art and creativity.
Oldest son of Nina, Miguel Castillo, owns the part of Ralph and Rowena’s homestead that was attached to the trading post. The front rooms were once a restaurant, also called La Doña Luz. With Ralph serving as chef, their dinner parties with other artists and guests were legendary and raucous, lasting long into the night. Now renovated, these rooms and former living quarters house boutique shops.
When I first walked into El Rincón, it felt like living history in every direction. There were relics and heirlooms and stories everywhere, hanging from the ceiling, tacked to the walls, or loaded into display cases. Shelves with dusty pottery and baskets. Concho belts, bolo ties, strings of beads, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and rings, vintage and new silver and turquoise. A back room piled with artifacts, too many to absorb.
Over my several visits to Taos, Estevan has been a generous “Contador” of his family’s stories. Often, we talked in his workshop where strong natural light pours in the big windows with a view toward his brother’s Inn. Jewelry making tools, silver, stones, and unfinished projects cover the workbench. There are cans and containers of beads and silver lining a high shelf along one wall.
Estevan Castillo is a nostalgic man. He remembers Rowena sitting on her chair in the late afternoon talking to Indian traders and customers while sipping a beer. He knew that his mother Nina was driven by a consuming need to paint every day. Just like her father. He is proud of the history and contributions of the ancestors who preceded him. He understands artistry, creation, and relationships founded on trust. Estevan knows devastation from tragic accidental deaths of his uncle and cousins. He has lived the bittersweet blessings of caretaking his grandmother and mother as they faded and died.
Today, Estevan preserves the legacy that began in the Mission Shop and continues in El Rincón. His stories are vivid. And like the grandfather he never knew, he can talk to anyone. In the worn adobe walls, darkly stained wooden beams, and eclectic collection of artifacts there are layers on layers of stories. Ask a question or wonder about Taos history and the oldest trading post from 100+ years ago, then be ready for where Estevan’s stories take you.
Facts About the Taos Pueblo
Taos means “Place of Red Willows” and the Indians of the Taos Pueblo are the Red Willow People, from the pre-Hispanic period in north America. There are 19 Pueblo communities in New Mexico. The Taos Pueblo is the only Native American community designated both as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as a National Historic Landmark.
Taos Pueblo is north of the town of Taos, located under Pueblo Peak [12,300 ft. elevation] in the Taos Mountain Range, which is part of the North American Rocky Mountains, specifically the Southern Rockies in the Sangre de Cristo Range. A tributary of the Rio Grande River runs through the property and provides running water and irrigation.
The multi-storied adobe dwellings [made of mud, clay, water, and straw] of the Taos Pueblo are unique to this geography and have been inhabited for more than 1000 years, due to a determined Native American community. It is the only World Heritage site cited for its significance as a living Native American culture.
There is no inside running water or electricity in the Pueblo. In the beginning, the dwellings had no windows or doors and were entered by climbing a long ladder through a hole in the roof. That has changed. Most residents live outside of the walls for much of the year. They return for sacred ceremonies and for tourism before Covid 19 arrived. The Pueblo has been closed for two years and there is no current plan to re-open.
Preservation of the buildings is a priority for trained community members. The sun-dried mud brick is annually restored with a new coat of adobe plaster using both traditional and modern construction techniques. This occurs as part of a tribal ceremony.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed a law returning 48,000 acres to the Pueblo Indians. This included Blue Lake, where Ralph Meyers was once a fire ranger. It was worshipped as a water source, is sacred land, and off limits to outsiders. The law provided a new safeguard to the water supply, natural resources, and the welfare of the Pueblo. The land is now secure for all social and cultural events.
A guest is good or bad because of the host who makes being a guest an easy or a difficult task. –Eleanor Roosevelt
When I was a child, there was a book called Miss Jellytot’s Visit that formed my first impression of what it means to be both a host and a guest. Nine-year-old Katie O’Dea watched her mother host college friend, Irene, in the guest room of their home. The bed was made up with the best linens and quilts in the house. There were big, soft feathery pillows in pink pillowcases that you could sink back into, and a rose on the bedside table. The towels were fluffy and white in the spotless bathroom. Their guest was served breakfast in bed on a tray with another rose alongside. There was an assortment of magazines and books to peruse in lounging leisure.
Katie dreamed of being a guest in her own house, staying in that comfortable room with nothing to do but dress up in fancy clothing, wear French perfume, and be waited on like “Aunt Rene”. With her parents’ indulgence, she arrives as a “visitor” from out of town, calling herself Miss Jellytot because that was the name of her favorite cookies. Everyone stayed in their assigned roles. Katie was treated like an adult the entire visit.
Of course, there were problems with all of this. The first was that Aunt Rene stayed for two weeks and never lifted a finger as she had come “to rest and relax.” Mrs. O’Dea was not sorry to see her friend leave on the train. The second was that Katie learned being a grown-up meant missing pleasurable childhood activities like playing outside with friends, going to swim parties, or getting a new puppy. She couldn’t wait to end her “visit” after six days and be a kid again. Lessons: Don’t jump into adulthood when you haven’t finished the fun of being a child. And don’t overstay.
The story left me with “how-tos” carried into my own adult life. As a guest in someone else’s home, I stay no more than three days, with exceptions for family birthings or need-to-help home stays. I also like to set up a room for overnight guests in my home that is cozy and welcoming and well-outfitted. A room that I would enjoy spending time in, too.
In early December, a cousin’s memorial service created the need to travel to St. Louis while I was already out of town for another event. My niece, Rebecca, has a large home with a guest bedroom and bath separate from the family’s living space. It was mine for the weekend. I flew in from across the country on a blustery wet night, rented a car and drove to her house knowing that everyone was out for the evening.
It couldn’t have been a better welcoming. I was warmed to my soul. Shrugging off coat in the back door entry, I smelled something delicious. Christmas lights and decorations were twinkling in every room. There was soft music coming from a speaker in the kitchen. Simmering on the stove was a pot of homemade chicken soup. There was a place setting on the counter next to a fresh baguette, butter, and a note inviting me to help myself.
I sighed gratefully and headed for the bedroom. Lights were on, a little gift in a colorful bag was on the bedside table next to a carafe of water. White towels were folded on the chair by the window. The bed was layered with white quilts, comforters, and billowy pillows.
Back in the kitchen, I poured a glass of wine, served myself a bowl of soup with bread and butter on the side, and said aloud, “This woman gets it.”
Hosting overnight guests involves providing for them in surprising and generous ways, going out of your way to roll out the welcome mat, even if you aren’t there to open the door. My niece checked all those boxes.
Rebecca is an interior decorator and organizer extraordinaire in her home and for her clients.
On a previous visit I noticed an opportunity where I could be of help. There is a small, temperature-controlled wine room in the basement. I had seen bottles of red and white and bubbly of differing vintages and values pushed randomly into wine slots. There were shelves a-jumble with gifted booze never opened and never intending to be drunk, gift bags strewn on the floor. If trying to find something special to serve and drink, well, there was no order.
My offer–to sit with her [and a charcuterie plate and two glasses of wine], pull everything off the shelves, put like vintages together, separate great bottles from the good and the cooking variety, use the label maker, toss out or give away questionable items like Ever Clear [!], horrible flavors of vodka, and other unidentifiable poisons. We set aside whisky that I might drink on another visit. She was thrilled. I was happy to spend time in a companionable activity in return for her hospitality. Win-win, like a thank you note in action.
Guest: Be genuine. Be remarkable. Be worth connecting with. –Seth Godin
Hosting at home can also be a celebratory party, a dinner, an outside barbecue. The host sets the stage while guests bring their exuberant mood, conversational banter, and best engaging self to round out the table. The most memorable get-togethers with family or friends have free-flowing discussions, storytelling, perhaps some soul searching, and laughter.
To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew: chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since…
–Gabrielle Hamilton,chef and author
We have a friend who masterfully slips in what he calls “the provocation” during dinner parties and casual social gatherings. It’s not confrontational and participation is optional. It’s a conversational attention grabber along the lines of “Who was an important influence in your life?” or “What is something that changed the direction of your life?” or “Have you experienced anything scientifically unexplainable, something paranormal?” Everyone chimes in because it adds another dimension to what we know about people we care about, and isn’t that why we get together in the first place? Adding detail, bridging thoughts and ideas with content, creating connection.
One more thing about being a good host and an even better guest. After years of inviting people to our home in Colorado, and for many years overseas, I have learned to enjoy late hours clean-up after the candles are snuffed and guests have cheerily said, “Good Night”. I like putting the kitchen back in order by myself or with my husband and thinking about the best parts of the evening. Again, from Gabrielle Hamilton:
I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested…When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time…
Yes, it is.
Rebecca uses bamboo sheet sets from Cozy Earth. They live up to the advertising “sleeping on a cloud”. www.cozyearth.com
Gabrielle Hamilton wrote the memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter. Her writing voice is very engaging. She also owned and cooked at Prune Restaurant in East Village, NYC until the first Covid shutdowns in 2020. She contributes occasional articles to the NY Times.
For additional stories, international anecdotes, and photos about hosts and guests there is this: The Grown-Up Table.
Thanksgiving Day 2021 is the 400th anniversary of the first harvest feast when the English Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts celebrated survival after a harsh introductory year in the New World. It wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln decreed an annual Thanksgiving holiday on the fourth Thursday of November.
Is what we know about Thanksgiving a day of celebration based on actual history or popular mythology? It depends where you get the story–from the perspective of the victors or the vanquished. In actual history, the Wampanoag Indians, who indeed helped the Pilgrims survive, were not officially invited to the celebratory harvest dinner. But they showed up anyway. And stayed for three days.
In land covering present day southeastern Massachusetts and part of Rhode Island, the Wampanoag Nation once numbered 30,000-100,000 strong. Their lineage can be traced back more than 10,000 years. They lived on the coastline in summer and moved inland during winter. Their geography provided herring and trout from the water, deer, elk, and bear from the forest, and crops planted and harvested on cleared land.
For the previous 100 years, the Wampanoag and other tribes had been trading and fighting with European explorers who passed through the area. Shortly before the Pilgrims came to settle at Plymouth Rock in 1620, the Wampanoag population had been decimated by a three-year pandemic of smallpox and yellow fever which they called “The Great Dying”. They lost approximately two thirds of their people.
Seeing women and children disembark from the Mayflower, the Wampanoag chief decided these people had not come to fight, but to stay. That winter, the Indians watched as half of the English died of cold, starvation, and disease.
Because of their own reduced numbers after the pandemic, the chief wanted to make allies, not war, with the new settlers. He had another ulterior motive–to get better weapons [guns] to use against their own neighboring tribal enemies. So, the Wampanoag people approached the starving settlers in the spring of 1621 and showed them the best way to plant, fertilize with fish entrails, and harvest crops that would survive–corn, beans and squash.
That fall, after a successful first harvest and the know-how to see them through succeeding winters, the Pilgrims decided to celebrate with a feast of thanks. The Wampanoags were not invited but showed up after hearing gunfire which they presumed to be the start of a war. They were dressed to fight but ended up joining the Pilgrim party as guests. Indian hunters brought in five deer to share. The feasting and revelry went on for three days and nights.
Was it a mistake for the Indians to befriend the Pilgrims? No one can answer for the actions of their ancestors, but today’s surviving members of the Wampanoag nation believe the wrong decision was made. After that first feast of celebration for a plentiful harvest and survival, colonization began in earnest. It was followed by the slow genocide of native people. More waves of Europeans landing on the shores led to more disease and more death of the indigenous cultures. The Wampanoag lands were stripped away, and their traditions shunned with enforced Christianity and boarding school attendance for children.
In 1970, a Wampanoag activist designated a “National Day of Mourning” to counter the national celebration of Thanksgiving Day.
Today, immersion schools have begun for Wampanoag children to learn subjects in their [almost lost] native language. For adults there are language classes. A museum near Plymouth is dedicated to the Wampanoag Indians and their contributions. There is an emphasis on the education and explanation of culture, traditions, and history, including the original Thanksgiving story.
From the conquerors’ gain, there is always loss and disarray left behind. On Thanksgiving Day, as in other years, the Wampanoag gather for a meal and give thanks, not for the Pilgrims arrival in the New World, but to their ancestors and for their survival as a tribe.
For the past 158 years, since Thanksgiving became a holiday, we pause on this day to say “Thank You” for blessings great and small among family and friends. As we gather to share with others in celebration and gratitude, let’s also remember the diverse contributions on both sides of the table, beginning more than 400 years ago.
The inspiration for this Thanksgiving story came from an article in the Washington Post by Dana Hedgpeth, “This Tribe helped the Pilgrims survive their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later.”
Sitting every night at the dining table with my wife, sharing our meal and a bottle of wine, discussing the events of the day…This daily ritual has been ingrained so profoundly within us that we could not live without it and that is how food memories are made. –Jacques Pepin
If you watch people eat, you can find out so much about them. Eating is learned behavior; one of the ways cultures define themselves is by teaching children what to eat…But as we get older, we begin to make our own food choices and they are equally telling. If I tell you I like very spicy food, I’m not just talking about food…I’m telling you I like adventure. –Ruth Reichl
Yesterday was the first rain/sleet/snowstorm in our part of the Colorado mountains. I spent the afternoon on the sofa with a fire blazing, a book in my lap, and candles on the coffee table as the light faded. The season for sitting outside with a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or a meal is behind us now.
Europeans have well-established dining rituals built into their cultures for centuries. Having lived in Germany and France, memories filter in on this quiet day. When we lived in France dining outside, “al fresco”, occured throughout the year, weather permitting, whether sipping “un café” or “un verre de vin” or enjoying a meal. It is as acceptable to do this alone as it is with friends or family.
My friend, Michelle, is American/French, married to a Frenchman, Jean Louis. They both own their own businesses. Michelle and her partner are in relocation services with their company, A Good Start in France. Jean Louis took over his mother’s bookstore which started out specializing in rare books on mountain climbing in the 1930’s. Since then, Librairie des Alpes has expanded into books on mountain imagery, guidebooks, rare, vintage, and new books of photos, art, lithographs, and even postcards. It continues to reflect the spirit of the mountains on rue de Seine in Paris’ 6th Arrondissement.
Michelle and Jean Louis live in a charming glass fronted two story house that looks like an atelier [artist’s studio] with so much natural light flooding in. It has a private courtyard outside the kitchen and living room.
Almost every Sunday morning Michelle and Jean Louis walk to the Porte de Vanves Flea Market which is in their neighborhood in the 14th Arrondissement.
After browsing and schmoozing with vendors they have long known, they head home stopping at a local market for lunch ingredients. Theirs is a mixed ethnic section of Paris which offers a rich variety of flavors in food choices in their market. Seasonal fruits and vegetables come straight from the farm, their favorite fish vendor is from Martinique and specializes in spicy, white fish dumplings called “acras de morue”, from the butcher they buy Lyon sausage, the boulanger provides fresh baguette and pastries.
What do I miss about living in Paris? It’s right here–in every local market in every neighborhood throughout the city. Choosing what to eat from the best and freshest ingredients all year long. I miss daily shopping on my market street.
Sometimes I ran into Michelle and Jean Louis on Flea Market weekends. One Sunday, shortly before we left France, I was invited to meet them at 10 AM for a walkabout/browse/pick up a trinket followed by lunch in their home courtyard. In the warm months, lunch takes on the informality of tapas, an assortment of small dishes. Always wine and a basket of sliced baguette.
The generosity of the French table is akin to honoring the spirit of the guests invited for a sit-down meal. Any meal, simple or formal, pays tribute equally to the guest and to the hosts who prepare it. It is a time to gather, enjoy good food, exchange information, share conversation (often politics), and memorable time with others. The art of the debate is encouraged and freely employed. No subject is off limits. This is a centuries-honored ritual of dining à la français.
For our lunch fare, the table was laid with spicy “acras” or codfish dumplings, slices of farm tomatoes with basil snipped from the courtyard garden, shrimp and avocado, cucumber salad with dill and a dash of piment d’espelette, a cheese assortment of buffalo mozzarella, goat, and camembert, smoked salmon, asparagus, roasted red peppers and tuna salad which Michelle spices with lots of chopped shallots and Dijon mustard. [She says French people think tuna salad is exotic because of its inherent American-ness]. A glass of wine, bien sûr.
What I remember is conversation that was lively and fluid, a Willy Ronin black and white photo [which I admired and was given as a gift], delicious food to dip bread into, and a host and hostess most charming. This “meal as a ritual of exchange and sharing”, in Michelle’s words, is a perfect reverie on a snowy indoor day. In France, every single sit-down meal is like this, whether sitting with one other person or a tableful of guests. Ah, France.
I believe we replicate this in America, perhaps not daily, but better on our national holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter where traditions and patterns around food are more universal in many families. Religious traditions also claim meal rituals and memories particularly around their holidays.
There are other stories of living in France, many written while we lived there. But today, this one of friends and food and time spent around a table in a cozy Parisian courtyard comes just at the right moment. It is vivid and warms me to the core while I gaze at blowing snow and autumn slides into winter.
Michelle often makes a seasonal soup for Sunday lunch. Fresh spinach soup is one of her staples. Spinach is out of season here now, but this is her recipe in simple format to try on your own.
Michelle’s Homemade Spinach Soup
Thoroughly wash and stem 2 lb of fresh spinach leaves.
Heat olive oil in a large stockpot, add lots of chopped shallots and sauté until wilted.
Peel and chop 1-2 large potatoes.
Add spinach, potatoes, and water or chicken or vegetable stock to the pot. [You can use a pressure cooker if you have one.]
Simmer until spinach cooks down and potatoes are soft.
Using an immersion blender, blend ingredients together in the pot.
Season to taste with salt and pepper and some piment d’espelette. [Espelette pepper]
Serve in a bowl with a little design made with cream or half and half on top.
Links to more stories about living in France that you will enjoy:
There is something evanescent, temporary and fragile about food. You make it. It goes, and what remains are memories. But these memories of food are very powerful. –Jacques Pépin
It takes a long time to grow an old friend. –John Leonard
These quotes remind me of the last time I visited my friend Gail in the mountains of North Carolina. Gail is my longest “go to” friend. We met at age 16 when my family moved to a small town in Iowa along the Mississippi River. She balances my analytic nature with kindness and consideration toward everyone. She is intuitive and listens like a compassionate counselor. She knows my eccentricities and loves me anyway. When I was undergoing medical treatments and the rest of my family was overseas, she jumped in to help by coming to Colorado and being with me. We laugh easily and know each other’s stories. Even when too much time has passed, there is immediate ease when re-engaging in each other’s lives. Although we don’t share the same blood, she is my sister too.
We didn’t know it at the time we became friends as teenagers but that is when we began living the concept of “growing an old friend”. We were unwavering through the high school years, the university years, summer jobs in the Wisconsin north woods, a western road trip at 21, marriages one week apart, children, and now grandchildren. We haven’t lived near each other for a long time, but we talk on the phone or visit back and forth in our respective states of Colorado and North Carolina as often as we can.
When we were 20, Gail and I worked one summer at a camp for girls on a lake in northern Wisconsin. It was the same year that she introduced me to the man I would marry three years later. She loyally returned from her honeymoon to stand next to me in our wedding one week after I had been a bridesmaid in hers. With husbands, our friendship grew as couples.
The last time I was in North Carolina we spent the entire visit in the Blue Ridge Mountain community of Leatherwood rather than in the city. It was early August and humidly warm in the mountains. Low bluish clouds formed a canopy over and around the green mountains across the valley. It’s a mystical and captivating way to greet each morning. And such contrast to Colorado’s high rocky peaks, golden aspens, and dry mountain air.
The food recollections from that visit are so clear. Gail made a pre-dinner apéro by muddling very ripe peaches in the bottom of a glass then poured Vino Verde [a light Portuguese sparkling white wine] over the top. Along with the wine were appetizers of pickled okra [very southern] and small slices of Manchego cheese. Manchego is a firm sheep’s milk cheese with buttery texture and mild taste. It was a perfect combination. The company, the light food, the ambience.
There was one quirky but memorable cocktail hour involving neighbors who invited us to their home. Burdette, a retired architect, 90 years-old, wanted to prepare his own version of “The World’s Best Martini”. Gail’s husband is a bourbon man and politely declined. But the three women–Gail, her sister, and I agreed to try. There was much ceremony involved in the preparation of glasses, the assembly of ingredients, the shaking of equal parts of vodka, gin, AND vermouth. Only one olive allowed per glass. We sipped. It was okay, but what I appreciated most was their living room Rumford fireplace–a tall, shallow, masonry fireplace of European design. They had added a swinging black pot apparatus to cook soup or stew over the open fire. It seemed romantically retro, but I could see myself sitting by a fire that way.
When in Carolina do as the locals do. Or drink as the locals drink. In many southern states, this means bourbon. Craig, Gail’s husband, is a quintessential bourbon guy. He has his own version of an Old Fashioned. The only time I drink bourbon whiskey is when he makes this for me. A slice of orange, some Bada Bing cherries, two shots of good bourbon, fill with club soda and ice. His daily bourbon is Maker’s Mark. For splurging, he reaches for Jefferson’s Ocean or Woodford’sReserve to sip over ice.
The best meal was something new to me. Shredded beef brisket with a smoky homemade sauce. Cooked long and slow in the oven and served as a main course with side dishes of cornbread, beans, and salad–the epitome of southern cuisine. Perfect for guests and great leftovers.
Each day was full–with morning walks before the heat rose to a crescendo, a side trip to Blowing Rock’s boutique shops, outdoor showers with wide-angle valley views, picnic lunch in a park, and noisy Jenga games ending with blocks crashing to the floor amid cries of “Oh no!” and laughter.
The Carolina mountains have been on my mind recently for a particular reason. Several seasons have passed and now it feels like time to return. To a different climate and different scenery. To those lower, greener hills, and humid misty clouds. To friends who make a difference in my life when we are together and even when we are not.
Jacques Pepin is right about the fleeting nature of food. You make it. It goes. What remains, what is truly powerful, is when we nourish our lives with memories of food in a spectacular setting, in a meal around a table, and taking time to grow the very best of friends.
GAIL’S BEEF BRISKET
Brisket is a tough cut of beef that must be tenderized by long, slow cooking. I adjusted the recipe for high altitude as most food takes longer to cook at 8300 feet where we live. My edits are in parentheses. The secret to this recipe is the sauce. Shredding the cooked brisket rather than slicing it eliminates the fat layer, leaving only the lean.
5-6 lb brisket [I have used smaller]
Salt and Pepper
Place brisket in baking dish with fat side up. Rub salt and pepper and liquid smoke onto both sides of meat. Cover with foil and seal edges of pan. Marinate 12 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.
Preheat oven to 275 degrees F.
Place sealed baking dish in oven for 5 hours.
[Better than timing is to test with a meat thermometer as it will take 2 or more hours longer at higher altitudes. Internal temperature should reach 200 degrees F.]
When meat is tender and done, take two forks and shred onto a serving platter.
Discard the fat layer.
Pour sauce over or serve in a pitcher, on the side.
Serve brisket on buns or as a main course with side dishes.
Leftovers are easily reheated and just as delish.
FOR THE SAUCE:
2 C. catsup
½ C. water
3 T. Liquid Smoke
4 T. Worcestershire sauce
8 T. butter
3 T. brown sugar
3 t. dry mustard
2 t. celery seed
¼ to ½ t. cayenne pepper
In a saucepan, slowly heat all ingredients together while stirring.
One of my favorite M.F.K. Fisher quotes is this: Wine and cheese are ageless companions, like aspirin and aches, or June and moon, or good people and noble ventures. To this I would add another companion comparison from my own recent experience: children and ice cream.
In 1686, the first café in Paris, Le Procope, opened in Saint-Germain-des-Prés with a Sicilian chef at the helm. His recipe of milk, cream, butter and eggs, an early Italian gelato, made ice cream available to the general public for the first time. For centuries it had only been enjoyed by the aristocracy. Over in America, it wasn’t until 1790 that an ice cream parlor opened in New York. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were known to have an affinity for this creamy icy treat. Ice cream’s reign as an indelible taste of summer is in the hearts of people around the world. Perhaps children most of all.
When I was growing up, the seasonal ice cream truck rang its bell through the streets of our neighborhood in St. Louis once or twice a week every June, July, and August. Parents doled out pocket change. We shouted and ran to the ice cream man who opened his portable freezer filled with drumstick cones or chocolate coated vanilla ice cream on a stick or ice cream sandwiches. It was a race to eat as fast as possible in the heat and humidity while trying not to lose precious drips on the way home. There was usually some kind of messy “plop” on the sidewalk which was left for the ants.
There are, of course, other foods typically consumed in the summer besides ice cream. Fresh corn-on-the-cob or s’mores made around a campfire are two of them. Food happiness, measured individually by expression, is certain to occur when delicious things are eaten by young children for the first time.
In April, we drove across two states to care for a two-and-a-half-year old grand-daughter and her eleven-month-old brother while their tired parents flew somewhere else for adult R & R. We brushed off muscle memory around the heavy lifting required with infants and toddlers. By the third day, it was time for a change of scenery away from the house, backyard, and front porch. Some kind of field trip.
Because of the previous fifteen months of shutdown life during Covid, I thought an outing for ice cream might be just the thing for young and unsuspecting palates. Also, it could be accomplished outdoors on a warmish spring day.
With the 2-year-old, things began with the anticipation of a drive somewhere new. There was curiosity to stand at a window, place an order, and be held up to see what was going on inside. There was eagerness when a cup of vanilla ice cream smothered in rainbow sprinkles was handed through the window. There was barely contained excitement while carrying it to a red iron bench and sitting down with a spoon and her own multi-colored delight.
While husband fed tiny tastes of ice cream to infant brother, the independent “I-dood-it-myself” girl spooned one transformative bite into her mouth. After one or two more she discovered a faster method.
It was the hand-to-mouth-vacuum-cleaner-technique. Her eyes narrowed momentarily as the heady sensation of cold and sweet sank in. Both hands tipped the cup to vertical maximum.
There was a moment of selfish possessiveness as she huffily pulled away from brother’s outreaching hand. Letting the remainder of the icy creamy semi-liquid slide into her mouth, she paused to consider what had just happened. Then, with a smug and satisfied grin, what was left was an empty container and face, hands, and clothes covered in sticky.
The success of the outing was summed up in one final moment. It was the kind of moment that captures the best part of kids and ice cream. With a timely click of the camera, a small girl was framed in a spontaneous second of joy…and ice cream bliss.
Joseph Campbell said that sacred places are where you go to wake up something important about yourself. Specifically, “A place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are or what you might be.”
…go where your body and soul want to go. When you have that feeling, then stay with it and don’t let anyone throw you off. –J. Campbell
When I wrote about how creating and inhabiting personal space nourishes us from the inside out [The Poetry of Space], I remembered a place rooted in my childhood. It was an 1840’s, pre-Civil War, stately brick home fronting more than 600 acres of Missouri woods and farmland.
Why did a 100+ year-old house in Villa Ridge, Missouri, deeded to my grandmother on the sudden death of her second husband take me metaphorically “where body and soul wanted to go”? I stayed with the feeling, as Campbell suggested, dug into archival history, then realized it was a story of its own.
This place, in rural Missouri, is why houses and spaces resonate with me. Time spent here, in a house with more than a century of history, was where I learned that certain spaces are more than a container with walls and floors.
I don’t remember John Coleman, who wed my grandmother late in life, but I do remember the house that his grandfather, Spencer J. Coleman, bought exactly one hundred years before grandson John, his last living heir, dropped dead outside the home where he was born.
That unexpected death occurred two years into the second marriage of John Coleman and my paternal grandmother, Effie [“Fifi”] Harbour Coulter They wed in 1954. John died two years later at age 77. Fifi, widowed for the second time at age 68, was deeded the house and 665 acres of prime Missouri farmland.
The Coleman House, as it is called today, became the place for our extended family to spend time together. Thirty miles from St. Louis off old Highway 100, Fifi’s six children and many grandchildren annually spent Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day holidays at the farm. Potluck picnics were set up on tables in the side yard. The adult crowd ate and socialized on lawn chairs while grandchildren from toddlers to teens were largely left to their own devices.
In my age group, cousins ran freely around the house and outbuildings or across the road to the school playground. We banged out every version of “Chopsticks” on the old upright piano. We walked the grassy road to the first big gate. If the black bull with a reputation for charging wasn’t in sight, we went on through and down the hill to the pond. Or we walked farther into the woods looking for the headstones of a family cemetery.
It was a jubilant time with a different brand of freedom; protected independence, discovery and exploration, wide-open country spaces, and the backdrop of a slightly downtrodden, but still imposing house, with tall-ceilinged rooms so different from the way we lived in town.
The condition and decor of the house might be described as mid-20th century shabby. There had been multiple renovations since its pre-Civil War prime. At this time, it featured large-patterned wallpaper, beige carpeting over wood floors, rickety enclosed porches with creaky, tilting floorboards, and fireplaces sealed or completely walled off. The eat-in kitchen had no built-in counter space. The plumbing upstairs and down was cast iron bathtubs, no showers.
What it looked like didn’t matter. What I remember is feeling happiness and liberating independence when I was there. Coleman House was where I “woke up” to making a decision about the future. I would only live in places and spaces that offered a brand of comfort and being at home in myself.
The summer I turned 11, we moved to a different state. Two years later we returned to visit the St. Louis family. At that time, an aunt and uncle and two of my closest cousins were living with Fifi to help manage the big house, the livestock and the fields.
When it was time to drive back to Texas, I begged to be left for a longer stay. The rest of that summer is etched in long-term memory. Finally I was living in a place I loved, where learning and experiencing and confidence building occurred by waking up in rural country spaces every day.
My cousin Karen taught me to drive a stick shift VW Beetle on farm roads. I gathered eggs, hung laundry to dry outside, picked garden strawberries, rode tractors, hand milked the cow, and stuck my finger into the thick layer of cream at the top of the milk canister. In the pick up truck, we checked on the cows down in the fields, sometimes with hay or a block of salt. I hiked to where the tiny Coleman cemetery was hidden in the woods.
My cousin Judy and I had a job selling July Fourth fireworks at a temporary stand on the highway. We sweated through our clothes, walked home covered in dust, and with a little money in our pockets. Before falling asleep, I climbed onto Judy’s bed under the window hoping to catch a whiff of breeze. Every night, with hands propped under her chin, she rattled off the make, model, and year of each passing car as it rounded the curve in the highway. Squinting at red taillights from a second floor window and listening to her monologue was sleep inducing.
In the old house, Judy felt the presence of “others.” No one believed her. According to her daughter Elise’s retelling, radio and television dials were in the habit of flipping on and off. Once, to make it stop, Judy unplugged the big radio in the kitchen, but the music continued. Sometimes the vacuum cleaner mysteriously went into action with no human nearby. On her only visit to the house, Elise herself experienced an eerie vision of “a coffin with a body” right where she was standing. She ran out of the house to escape the image. In an earlier century, the room she was in would have been used as the viewing parlor when family members died. Current owners of Coleman House mention “a light” or “a shadow” going up the staircase from time to time.
When Fifi died, her estate was sold in its entirety, house and acreage, to a real estate firm in St. Louis and later to Ralston Purina Company. Purina owned much of the surrounding land since the 1920s and still operates a research farm in the area.
I knew the Coleman House before I understood Joseph Campbell’s sentiment about “sacred places and spaces”. It awakened something inside me at a tender age for two reasons. It was a unique and memorable place. And I was with people who granted me the freedom to experiment and experience during formative years.
Everything that happened at Coleman house helped nurture my better self then. And everything that happened brought forth the person I became.
A Consolidated History of the Coleman Family and Coleman House
In 1837, Spencer Joseph Coleman [1816-1888] moved west, with his father and brothers, from the depleted soils of Virginia to land south of the Missouri River near St. Louis. They planned to start a new family plantation. By 1841, Spencer married Elizabeth Ann Wright and decided he liked the land further west, near Gray Summit, in Franklin County. So he split off from the family and began buying up different sized parcels over many years. Eventually he acquired 665 acres of rolling hills and fertile fields for growing tobacco and hemp.
Along the way he saw an elegant red brick mansion built by James Ming in the 1840’s. He offered to buy it with an attached 200 acres. Ming was a skilled craftsman and had built the home for himself using walnut, white pine, and oak cut from the land. He oversaw the making of each brick–cut from clay soil, shaped, molded and fired on site. But he sold the house and land to Spencer for $6000 in 1856.
It was initially called Bellaire, a solidly built mansion of masonry walls two bricks thick with a foundation of limestone blocks. The front porch entry was relatively small, but featured hand carved decorations and four columns on the front and two on either side of the door. There was leaded glass above and around the door.
Inside were two large rooms flanking a central walnut staircase. The back entrance opened to a double open porch gallery of two stories with its own smaller stairway. Beams used to support the upper gallery were hand hewn from trees cut on property and cemented with wooden pins. The kitchen was also in the back with an attached summer kitchen for hot weather cooking. Upstairs were three bedrooms, two large ones at the front of the house and a smaller nursery behind. There were six fireplaces for heating, three on each floor.
Spencer Coleman, with wife Elizabeth Ann [1823-1867] and four children moved into Ming’s mansion in 1856. For the next 100 years it was passed down through succeeding Coleman generations. Eldest son William Joseph Coleman [1848-1925] was the first to inherit the house and farm when Spencer died in 1888.
William Coleman married 15-year-old Emma Lou Sullivan [1860-1883] in 1875. She bore three children before dying tragically when her skirts caught on fire while burning trash and leaves in the orchard. She was only 23. William was left with two young children–Emma Josephine [1876-1952] and my grandfather by marriage, John Marshall Coleman [1879-1956]. William asked his unmarried sister, Elmira, to move in and help care for the family. He never married again.
That generation of Colemans, Emma Josephine and John Marshall, children of William and Emma Lou, and grandchildren of Spencer and Elizabeth Ann, produced no heirs.
John Coleman’s first wife died in 1925. He waited 29 years to remarry. The second time was to my paternal grandmother Effie Lavina Harbour Coulter [Fifi]. He was 75. She was 66. Fifi had raised five daughters and one son, my father Joseph Clayton. My grandfather, Andrew Joseph Coulter, left her widowed in 1946.
Effie and John had already known each other for many years. John was a lawyer by degree but worked as the bookkeeper for my grandfather’s “Coulter Hay Feed and Grain” store in downtown Kirkwood, Missouri. It is rumored that he was sweet on Fifi for a long time before asking her to marry. She moved into Coleman House in May 1954.
Two years later, John was in the yard talking about building another pond in the fields when he keeled over from a heart thrombosis and died instantly. My cousin, Linda, remembers it vividly because she was spending the night at the farm as she often did with Fifi.
From the purchase of the property by Spencer in 1856 to John’s death in 1956, one hundred years of Coleman legacy ended that summer evening. My grandmother inherited the estate. For the next seventeen years, Coleman House and farm was part of our extended family.
In 1973 Fifi died and everything was eventually purchased by Ralston Purina Company. It added a large parcel to their adjacent land. Transient workers, who were researching animals or Purina product development, moved in and out. Soon everything–the house, grounds, and outbuildings fell into crumbling disrepair.
Finally, in 1985, Purina sold the house “as is” with a few acres of land to a couple working for the company. That’s when transformation began. I didn’t meet these owners, but I learned that their labor-of-love saved the historic property from complete ruin. Over many years, with a contractor’s help, the house was gutted and literally rebuilt from the inside out.
Because it was solid brick construction, they began pulling down interior plaster walls to build new walls with studs, insulation, and dry wall. All six fireplaces were opened and restored to the top of the chimneys. In the kitchen, one fireplace was hidden behind a wall. It turned into a beautiful and usable part of the room.
White pine floors were uncovered and refinished. The walnut staircase was refurbished. The attic was insulated. Original single pane windows were replaced by custom built ones. Two rickety enclosed porches on the back were torn off and rebuilt to their original open architecture.
The smallest of the upstairs bedrooms was opened and incorporated into the master bathroom with a fireplace and sitting area, now used as a sewing room. The summer kitchen was torn off and rebuilt brick by brick to become the back entrance. The old wooden front porch must have been unsalvageable because it was replaced with bricks spanning the front of the house and a second floor balcony was added. Shutters were hung on the outside windows.
After years of living in a construction zone, a job change occurred, and the property sold in 2003 to the couple that now lives there. They have added their own touches–an attached garage and an outbuilding for storing antiques for their business. The summer kitchen entry was raised by one story to house an office upstairs and an improved bathroom/laundry area below. The cedar shake roof was replaced with metal after severe hail damage several years ago. They built a patio and walkway around the house with 10,000 cobblestones and added to the landscaping by replacing dead trees, planting many shrubs, and adding a large flower/vegetable garden.
The current owners graciously allowed me to visit Coleman House in early spring this year. I went with my cousin, Karen, who had lived there with her mother, father, sister, and our grandmother.
It was wonderful to see the changes from “then to now”. Coleman House was truly saved after 1985. It was revitalized to modern living standards and new generations continue adding to its legacy. Restorations that took decades of vision and a tremendous outlay of work enhance the original beauty of James Ming’s craftsmanship from almost two centuries ago.
Added Coulter Lore with Pics
*Final musings about my grandmother.
When I began this research, I wasn’t thinking about the work-a-day life for women in my grandmother’s era. But it was overwhelming by anyone’s standards. Over the span of 17 years, Effie bore 5 girls and 1 boy at home and raised them almost singlehandedly. Her husband, a middle-aged man who provided for the family, was uninvolved in household life. Grampa Joe was known to sit in his chair reading the newspaper with a spittoon at his feet, seemingly oblivious to the chaos of six children running circles around him. Added to that workload was the daily care and feeding of a mother-in-law who wouldn’t get out of bed for the last 20 years of her life. And then, after marriage, several daughters lived at home with their husbands until finding other arrangements.
The overall picture of Fifi’s life looked like this: The full management of a large household with six children underfoot, a disconnected, but working, husband, a mother-in-law who decided to stay in bed for 20 years, taking in boarders for extra money, and adult children moving in and out with spouses.
Perhaps John Coleman saved Fifi by wooing her out to the farm where she only had one man to worry about.
Your home has to be a refuge, the place you come back to after the world has done all the things it has done to you, where you can be truly yourself, power out, refuel. It should feel good every time you walk in the door. –Amanda Dameron
One year into the Covid-19 pandemic, where spending more time at home has been the norm, the importance of home space, how we create it, how we live in it, what it means, seems a timely topic.
Quarantine has redesigned the rhythms of life at home. It has provided different ways to think about and use space. It’s not only about structure, but also light and air, comfort, privacy and intimacy in a place where we can safely talk, think, do, or just be.
…as a child, I always wanted to be in other people’s houses. Now, though still fascinated by those other houses, I am only really comfortable and relaxed in my own. My house is like a garment, made to my exact measurements, draped around me in the way I like…–Margaret Forster
My interest in houses and interior spaces began in childhood. In a small town suburb of a mid-western city, my mother would pile my younger sister and me into the backseat of the station wagon whenever she visited a friend outside our neighborhood. I never refused to go. I knew we would drive past a certain house, on curvy Big Bend Road, where my imaginary friend Cindy lived. And every time we drove by, I said aloud, “Look, there’s Cindy’s house!”
Imaginary friends weren’t an option–they were essential. –Emory Ann, 23 Things Only Children Know to be True
I made up this friend, gave her a name, and pretended to call her on the phone from the car because there was something I loved about that particular house, shaded by tall trees on a curved lot. I wanted to run to the door and be invited to play with a friend who didn’t exist. In my eight-year-old mind, I even imagined living in this cottage-like home with people I didn’t know.
Like the body itself, a home is something both looked at and lived in.…it is an image, an idea, a goal; perhaps as it was for my mother…it has filtered down to me.–Rachel Cusk
It is common to find a family link in people who care about how they live, what their space looks like, how it feels to others. Often it begins in an environment during childhood, emulating a relative’s sense of design and comfort in the home. Sometimes it comes from other early life experiences.
I spoke with a sampling of family and friends about how their interest developed in creating a home that both nurtured them and resonated with others. I asked for a recollection or anecdote when they knew that space, of a certain style, just so, would be important for the rest of their lives.
Responses varied from a childhood obsession for re-arranging furniture in a tiny bedroom until it felt right, to sewing curtains, bedspreads and pillows to create a signature space. Others spoke of a fascination with miniature rooms in doll houses, or a teenage bedroom on the top floor of a Victorian house with a sink built into the closet, or annually setting up a primitive cabin in a summer boys camp.
My friend Marilyn Larson wrote a beautiful memory about playing with her younger sister on the family farm in southern Minnesota. In a small grove of trees, they carefully raked the ground and removed debris in preparation for setting up rooms for a home. Each room was given a name designated by purpose, furnished with orange crates, lumber, or broken implements scavenged outside the barn. Sometimes they played “restaurant” by setting up a counter on a long plank of wood dragged from the junk pile, accessorized with broken dishes. They served homemade “mud cakes” and tried to entice their brother to buy one.
My brother-in-law Erik, a professional designer, has two memorable stories. The first was when he carved the skyline of New York City into the pine headboard of the bed his father had just built. Only six-years old, using pointy scissors and ballpoint pens as primitive tools, he was proud of the creation of what he thought New York might look like. His parents were not impressed. He also secreted clear plastic food containers from the kitchen to an empty neighborhood field where he spent hours constructing houses, buildings and towns in the open, weedy landscape. His mother had no appreciation for this either. But he was onto something that evolved into a life of designing and building sets and spaces for theater, television, and corporations.
Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work organically synced with nature, was influenced by space as a toddler. His schoolteacher mother bought a set of educational blocks created by the German educator, Friedrich Froebel. These geometrically shaped blocks were designed to teach children about form and relationship to nature. Wright remembers being fascinated by them, assembling shapes and compositions for hours at a time. He credited them for kindling his creative mind toward architectural design.
…there is no true understanding of any art without some knowledge of its philosophy. Only then does its’ meaning come clear.–Frank Lloyd Wright
Considering houses as art forms, Wright suggests that to really understand them they should be viewed philosophically. But it was a book by Gaston Bachelard that first started me thinking about houses metaphorically.
Gaston Bachelard [1884-1962] was a French philosopher from the last century. But his idea of the house as poetic space that holds memories and opens portals to dreams and imagination feels timeless.
Bachelard uses the image of houses “as a tool for analysis of the human soul”. Simplified, the house is the container that shelters our body, which is the container for our inner life. To access inner life requires daydreaming. In order to daydream we need solitary time. With solitary time, we learn to love “the space inside us”, the creative dreaming place. Learning to happily “abide” within ourselves while in the shelter of the house is poetry, because the house is in us as much as we are in it.
What does this mean?
The house, a physical space, provides shelter for us to dream and make memories. These dreams and memories are held in our unconscious, a metaphysical place. Remembering dreams is easier with connection to an actual space. When the house offers places to curl up, in solitude, such as nooks and crannies, window seats, attics and garrets, one’s own bedroom, there are built-in places to think and dream and create. The circle of house around us housing the soul within us is poetry.
Bachelard says children must be allowed time to daydream. They need to learn to love being alone and, at times, even bored. Solitary time opens and invites new thinking in unexpected ways–just as poetry does. Time alone teaches children to live within themselves, too. Inside their daydreams is where they experience the immensity of imagining–worlds within worlds.
The house protects the dreamer. The houses that are important to us are the ones that allow us to dream in peace. –Gaston Bachelard
The house you were “born in” is your first space of material warmth, protection and rest. It is imprinted in a place in the subconscious that you may or may not return to in dreams. If we dream about houses they are often not easily described by words. There’s where the poetry comes in.
In the house I was born into, my older sister had the best room. Her bedroom was underneath the roof. To the right, at the top of the stairs, was an aromatic cedar closet where seasonal clothes were stored. To the left, down a narrow hallway was the door to her room. The walls and ceiling were honey colored pine and the ceiling angled like a triangle from the peak. Low walls ran along both sides with cubbyhole doors that hid spaces further under the eaves. There was a tiny closet with low hanger bars and a narrow shelf for folded clothes. The only window opened to a flat roof over the front porch. It was forbidden to go out there because you might “fall through” the unsupported porch ceiling. But I learned that my sister crawled out the window to climb onto the higher roof and [secretly] smoke with her friends.
When she was away, I lay on her bed, stared into the peak, re-arranged the furniture in my head, and imagined how I would live if this were my space. Eventually I had a claim to the coveted room when it was time for her to go to university. But then my father took a job in a different state. And that perfect bedroom nest, which I never fully inhabited, still recurs in my nighttime dreams. [Disclosure: with the addition of a bathroom through the back wall of the closet by my subconscious.]
Our house is our corner of the world…it is our first universe. If looked at intimately–even the humblest dwelling is beautiful.–Gaston Bachelard
All inhabited space is essentially the notion of home. But it doesn’t have to be a house as the shelter that opens the doorway to creativity and dreaming. A hermit’s hut, a childhood bedroom, a tent in the woods, the car on a road trip, a favorite hike, a deep soaking bathtub, a tree next to a river–places where we can be alone are also conduits to accessing “inside” spaces where we think and dream and create. Even the humblest, most primitive space can be this place.
You have to filter out stale ideas that your mother gave you about how you should live, or what you should have in your space. Does it have to do with you, or not?–Interior designer, New York Times
My mother had a knack for making houses into homes. She intuitively knew how things should be arranged and was true to her own tastes for creating comfort in the places I grew up. Later, she was on the sidelines with advice as I began experimenting with my own living spaces.
The time came when we both realized that choices going forward needed to be mine and not hers. One birthday she gave me a clear glass ginger jar lamp stuffed with white seashells. The shade had accordion pleats the color of beige sand. I didn’t say I hated it, but it had nothing to do with me. It was her idea of a cool accessory. So I diplomatically said I didn’t want a lamp as much as I wanted a professional bread knife with serrated edges. She kept the lamp. I got the knife. Future gifts were checks.
My first apartment living alone was in Madison, Wisconsin on the top floor of a house across the street from Lake Monona. It had a glassed-in porch that looked into trees on the lake shore. The bed was a saggy mattress on top of bouncy coil springs hauled down from the attic one floor above. I arranged green trees and plants for window treatments, hammered Indian cotton tapestries to the wall to hide plaster cracks, and covered splintery floors with funky patchwork rugs. There was no bedroom door so I tacked up a curtain of wooden beads that clinked and swayed in long strands. It was perfect.
Marriage followed with several changes in geography in the U.S. Eventually we made the decision to move overseas. Different stories accumulated while living in five countries over the next 30 years. Apartments or houses in Singapore, Cyprus, Taiwan, Germany and France were woven together by the layout of affordable space that fit our family and by treasures we collected from each place we lived. There were always challenges while adapting to a new job, unfamiliar languages and cultures. But whatever the outside world threw at us, when we crossed the threshold of each dwelling and breathed in familiar sights and scents, it was our space, our comfort, our sanctuary of home.
My artist friend, Catherine Ventura, whom I met in Taiwan said it best, “I make familiar spaces in unfamiliar places.” We all did.
The ideal of happiness has always taken material form in the house, whether cottage or castle. It stands for permanence and separation from the world.–Simone de Beauvoir
Frances Schultz recovered from a failed relationship and missteps in mid-life by buying and renovating a tiny dilapidated cottage with good bones. She wrote a therapeutic memoir, The Bee Cottage Story, about healing herself with the power and creativity of making a beautiful home.
There are no rules about how a house becomes a home. It requires thought, time and attention, and putting your stamp on it by living in the space. As far as decorating, Schultz advises intuition; “If it feels right, it probably is. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. Instincts are not wrong. Ignoring them is…when a space is right for you; there is an instinctive response to it–an intuitive sense of how you would live there, where your things would go, what you would keep, and what you would change. It’s a project, not a struggle.”
Ruth Bender, a long time friend, wrote these thoughts; “Making a home is a mentally engaging and creative gift to oneself. It is an expression of love to those we are lucky enough to actually be with and to those dear ones who are gone or far away.”
Houses that become homes are like a poem. They have structure that represents how we want to live in the world. They shelter our feelings for people and beautiful surroundings we love. And if the home is nourishing to the soul and allows expression of the “inner self”, then we are fortunate to have created our own poetry of space.
…believe that place is fate. Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is entwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave. –Frances Mayes
It seems that every four years I am moved from writing personal stories to a subject that resonates in the current moment. The 2021 inaugural ceremony for the 46th President of the United States provided the moment. Specifically, Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her poem written for the occasion entitled, “The Hill We Climb”. Her words left me without any. I was overcome with emotion, and then hope.
Amanda Gorman is our National Youth Poet Laureate. She is the youngest person to write and present an inaugural poem on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, DC. Her message is one of resilience and recovery, of democracy’s imperfect, unfinished business. It requires bravery and stamina to weather inherent storms in America’s form of democracy. It requires courage and contribution to promote the work of systemic change.
Amanda spoke of the ability, after a period of disconnection and chaos, to collectively re-form as a nation of Americans, rather than a nation of divisions.
The fact that a twenty-two-year-old authored such beautiful, powerfully emotive words was, for me, the essence of her moment in the spotlight. It is this brand of inspiration which the younger generations bring to the table that will move us forward. Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see.” In Amanda’s words:
“If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promised glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare it.
Because being an American is more than a pride we inherit–It’s the past we step into, and how we repair it.”
Gorman is also part actor. Her interpretive recitation of “The Hill We Climb”, at the close of the inauguration, was punctuated with alliterative emphasis, emotion, gesture, rap and rhyme. Hamilton fans will recognize illusions to Lin Manuel-Miranda’s way with history, words, and meter:
“In this truth, in this faith we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.”
Amanda Gorman is more than a talented poet of her generation. She understands the power of words, their lasting effect, whether written or spoken. She believes in words as a catalyst for change. Poetry is her medium.
As part of a peaceful transition of power in America, an inauguration ritual is enacted with every new administration voted into office. It has been this way for more than 200 years. On January 20, 2021, Amanda Gorman revealed to the world, with cadence and crafting, that a shift in our country’s values will lead us to where we belong.
“We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.”
“When day comes, we step out of the shade. Aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light, if we’re only brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Amanda Gorman among a generation of many, ready to lean across the national divide with outstretched arms, is the future where I want to be.
THE HILL WE CLIMBby Amanda Gorman
When day comes, we ask ourselves: Where can we find light In this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.
We braved the belly of the beast.
We've learned that quiet isn't always peace, And the norms and notions of what “just is"
Isn't always justice. And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow, we do it.
Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed A nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished.We, the successors of a country and a time Where a skinny Black girl,Descended from slaves and raised by a single mother, Can dream of becoming president,
Only to find herself reciting for one.
And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine. But that doesn't mean we're striving to
form a union that is perfect. We are striving to forge our union with purpose, To compose a country committedTo all cultures, colors, characters,And conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not To what stands between us But what stands before us. We close the divide,
Because we know to putOur future first, we must first Put our differences aside.We lay down our arms So we can reach our arms outto one another. We seek harm to none, and harmony for all. Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew,
That even as we hurt, we hoped,
That even as we tired, we tried. That we’ll forever be tied together. Victorious,
Not because we will never again know defeat,
But because we will never again sow division.Scripture tells us to envision that: "Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, And no one shall make them afraid."
If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory Won't lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we've made. That is the promised glade, The hill we climb, if only we dare it: Because being American is more than a pride we inherit––
It's the past we step into, and how we repair it. We've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, It can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith, we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future, History has its eyes on us.This is the era of just redemption. We feared it at its inception. We did not feel prepared to be the heirs Of such a terrifying hour. But within it we've found the power To author a new chapter, To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So, while once we asked: How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert: How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was, But move to what shall be: A country that is bruised but whole, Benevolent but bold, Fierce and free. We will not be turned around, Or interrupted by intimidation, Because we know our inaction and inertia Will be the inheritance of the next generation. Our blunders become their burdens. But one thing is certain: If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, Then love becomes our legacy, And change, our children's birthright.So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left. With every breath from our bronze-
pounded chests, We will raise this wounded world into
a wondrous one. We will rise from the gold-limned hills of the West! We will rise from the windswept
Northeast, where our forefathers first realized revolution! We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states!
We will rise from the sun-baked South! We will rebuild, reconcile and recover, In every known nook of our nation, In every corner called our country,
Our people, diverse and dutiful. We'll emerge battered and beautiful.When day comes, we step out of the shade
Aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it,
For there is always light, If only we're brave enough to see it.
If only we're brave enough to be it.
“Let’s begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another, see one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.“
As a mountain is unshakenby the wind,so the heart of the wiseperson is unmovedby all the changes on this earth.
Summer 2020. July road trip from the mountains of Colorado to lake hopping in Wisconsin–cancelled. Coronavirus rampant worldwide and no vaccine, yet. While accepting the present moment, something needed shaking up.
A conversation about camping in early marriage led to the basement in search of gear. It was not what we remembered. There was an under sized tent–don’t think so, wafer thin sleeping pads–nope, one camp stove–completely rusted. Not much in the way of basics. However, a reliable looking percolator coffee pot and two fine sleeping bags revived hope and possibility. We headed to the nearest REI store to fill in the gaps.
An open sky half-domed tent, two self-inflating sleeping pads, and one tiny state-of-the-art stove later, we were ready to reconnect with outdoor living in nearby mountain campground terrain.
September was late to get started. We hoped the fire ban, in place since July, would be lifted but instead it was extended for good reason. It’s almost obligatory to come home from camping and smell like campfire smoke. Not this season.
We scoped out sites in advance because reservations are mandatory. To “walk in” means setting up a tent next to the bathrooms. Our choice was a good one. We had neighbors to the right and left, but lodge pole pine forest behind.
Forgetting a few things prompted the start of a “next time” list. The night passed peacefully for husband who slept right through while I lay awake with a maddening bout of insomnia. Hours spent listening to night sounds–the tent-side scratching and rustling of small rodents. Later, there was a loud and persistent snuffling noise just north of sleeping man’s head. I chose to let him slumber on as I flipped over and over in my sleeping bag in hopes of urging away nocturnal critters, imagined or not.
In the morning, the aluminum coffee percolator worked like a charm.
A month later, we tried out new territory in the Arapahoe/Roosevelt National Forest. Within the forest is a huge expanse of land originally owned and used by Hewlett-Packard for employee recreation and leadership retreats. It has since become public space with large, natural, private campsites.
The mid-October day of our reservation began with cold rain, then sleet, and finally horizontal blowing snow. We watched and waited. Hours later, as often happens in Colorado, the sun was shining. Deciding that our tent and sleeping bags could withstand forecast colder temperatures and high winds, we headed out.
Campsite #38 in Hermit Park is isolated and beautiful. Late autumn golden-leafed aspens, craggy rocks, boulders, and pine trees surrounded the tent. Metal stakes and rocks kept things battened down as the predicted wind picked up with attention getting gusts. Yet again, we were underprepared. This time–no warm gloves, no insulated footwear, no heavy coats. Temperatures dipped even before darkness fell.
Only 25-minutes from home, I volunteered to collect missing gear so we could see the night through. Upon return, husband was stamping in circles to keep warm. It was time to open the wine and get the stove fired up. Hands and feet were toasty and battery lanterns lit up the dusk as night settled in, even without a campfire.
Homemade chili heated in vintage cast iron warmed our insides. Finally, with the wind blowing in breathtaking gusts, an empty wine bottle, and total darkness, we looked at each other and laughed. The tent was an easy invitation to turn in.
All night the wind moaned, circled and doubled back relentlessly. But we were snug as bugs. This time, the only outside noises were buffeting tent flaps noted briefly before turning over and settling back to sleep under layers of cozy warmth.
Husband was up at early light to get the coffee started. It was a feat of expertise to keep the stove lit and protected from the high wind. But he did. Emerging from the tent, I took a photo of the moon above the trees.
We cheered when the pot finally began percolating. Coffee was steaming and strong. Continental breakfast, camp style, was s’mores bars dipped in tin mugs. [recipe: Guest Ready Sweetness]
We could have stayed home. We could have sat by an indoor fire in a heated cabin with candles on the coffee table. But a pandemic with ongoing caution to remain hunkered down and distant from others invited us into the wilderness.
So we found ourselves pitching a tent, in a remote campsite, in inclement weather, inside a slice of time with no past or future, only the present. A late autumn afternoon turned into evening, and then a new day.
We chose to go deeper into the mountains and sleep on the ground with high winds as our companion. And while there, we let go and breathed deeply in the midst of life’s uncertainty.
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows through trees.The wind will blow freshness into you,and cares will drop away like leaves of Autumn.–John Muir
To say it has been an atypical summer in the mountains is an understatement. Forest fires burning around us since July, ash and haze obscuring mountain outlines, no rain in three months, statewide fire ban, surging global pandemic, and a lack of visitors except for children and grandchildren.
I’m more than ready for next season’s return to normalcy if it works out that way. By ready, I mean that I have three exceptional recipes to satisfy the sweet tooth of any person or group that drops by, sits around a campfire, or stays overnight.
Maddy’s Caramel Bars, Patricia’s Double Chocolate Brownies with Sea Salt, and Jean’s S’mores Bars are unbeatable for chewable bites of sweetness cut out of a 9×13 inch-baking pan.
As all great passed-on recipes should be, these come from stories about friends.
Last summer’s road trip in 2019 was to Maddy and Cabby’s cabin on the Methow River [A Guest Room Under the Porch] in eastern Washington State. Maddy is a great cook and hostess. Their log home, with overflow teepees and tents, is a revolving door of family and friends. She offered us her always-on-the-counter pan of caramel bars and said, “Try these. People love them! They are my go-to for company all summer long.” We sampled and agreed. Caramel bars with chocolate chips and pecans were prepared over and over for our own guests, with rave reviews.
Patricia, whom I have written about in several adventures, Cocoa Cake With My Curry, Please, Sunshine on the Back of Your Knees] vacationed in Colorado in August. She rented a cabin bordering on the National Park just down the road from us. The double chocolate brownies she brought to our front porch originated from a friend in Wisconsin. Richly chewy, with texture from chocolate chips inside, these brownies are for every chocoholic. I switched out the garnish of powdered sugar for flaky sea salt sprinkled over the top. Et maintenant ç’est plus délicieux. Chocolate and salt can’t be beat. Except by caramel and salt. Or almost anything with salt.
The last recipe came onto the scene this summer because of the harsh no burn season. We invited neighbors for a socially-distanced outdoor cookout around the fire ring. S’mores were requested for dessert. Except a campfire couldn’t be lit. Our friend, Jean, came bearing S’mores Bars baked in the oven and cut into bite-sized squares. These are even better than real s’mores, which often feature charred marshmallows blackened over red-hot coals.
With baked s’mores you can revisit the original in one chewy, not overly sweet, bite of marshmallow and chocolate chip cookie dough over a graham cracker crust. There is melted chocolate on top so licking fingers is required. I substituted dark chocolate for traditional milk chocolate. [S’more better.]
I’m anticipating the return of a next summer’s season of sequential guests. This winter while I drink coffee next to the picture window with the wide angle view of Long’s Peak, I will muse about the return of daily summer afternoon rainstorms followed by rainbows, campfires by sunrise, sunset, or moonrise, and baking pans full of dessert bars to sweeten everything that happens in between.
CARAMEL BARS [Maddy Hewitt]
1 C melted butter
1 C flour
1 C oats
1 C brown sugar
1 ¼ tsp baking soda
Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Pour melted butter over and mix in. Reserve ¼ of the mixture for topping. Pat the rest into bottom of a 9 x 13 inch baking pan. Bake 15 min. at 350 F. Cool 5-10 min.
1 bag Kraft Caramels, wrappers removed
3 ½ Tbs butter
3 Tbs cream [or Half & Half]
Melt all together, SLOWLY, in cast iron skillet over low heat. Stir constantly. When melted, pour over cooled crust.
1 C semi sweet chocolate chips [or dark chocolate chips]
¼ to ½ C pecan pieces
Mix together and sprinkle over caramel layer
Using reserved crust mixture, sprinkle over the top of chips and pecans
Bake 10 min. more at 350 F. Allow to cool completely before cutting. Store in tins. Freezes well.
DOUBLE CHOCOLATE BROWNIES WITH SEA SALT FLAKES [Patricia Green-Sotos]
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1 C butter
2 C granulated sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 C flour
12 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 ½ C miniature marshmallows
Flaky sea salt crystals
Melt chocolate and butter slowly in a saucepan over low heat. When melted, add sugar and set aside to cool slightly. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in vanilla and flour. Mix well. Fold in chips and marshmallows.
Bake in a parchment paper lined 9 x 13 baking pan [or grease the pan] for 30-35 minutes at 350 F. Top may be bubbly. Don’t overcook. Sprinkle with sea salt flakes and cool completely before cutting. Store in tins or plastic ware. Freezes great.
S’MORES BARS [Jean Adam]
1 ½ sleeves graham crackers, crushed with rolling pin in zip-loc bag
2/3 C melted butter
1/3 C granulated sugar
Mix together and press into bottom of 9×13” pan lined with parchment paper. Bake 7 min at 350 F. Cool slightly.
1 C butter softened to room temperature
¾ C brown sugar
¾ C white sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Cream together. Add:
2 ¼ C flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 C semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips
2 ½ C mini marshmallows
Drop by large spoonfuls of dough carefully over crust and press into graham crackers without disturbing the layer underneath. Bake 15 min at 350 F or until golden brown on top. Quickly remove from oven and cover the top with broken pieces of Hershey’s dark chocolate bars. [2 large ones or 3 small]
Return to oven until chocolate melts ~ 3-5 min. Don’t overcook or let the top get too brown.
Cool completely before lifting parchment out of pan and cutting into small squares.
It’s late summer in Estes Park, Colorado. Smoky haze from surrounding forest fires has begun to subside. Afternoon rain showers precede lower temperatures day and night. A bugling elk was heard from the open window last night. Change of season is near.
Sunday afternoon. We spontaneously headed into Rocky Mountain National Park. A picnic supper was packed, and we set out to an undetermined location for sunset watching and contemplative time.
This wasn’t our first venture in improvising an outing at the last minute. But it turned out to be a memorable one.
Moraine Park is a vast landscape with 360-degree wide-angle views. Elk herds typically congregate here during the rut, covering wide swaths of the meadow. It is still early for this so we looked for a scenic place to set up temporary camp.
The Big Thompson River flows east through Moraine Park, gurgling and sparkling and encouraging fishermen to cast lines in late afternoon sun. We spied an empty sandbar and a trail leading there. Pulling over, we walked to the water’s edge.
The sandbar was wide and pebbled with small and medium sized rocks. Clear, shallow water curled around with soothing sounds. There were tall green reeds on the far side, shining in the sun, waving in the breeze. The river is narrow here but cold, as expected of mountain run-off streams.
Green folding camp chairs, a small oak table, a cooler and a basket of food completed the set up. We settled in and began with a toast to the sunset, to the high peaks, to living in such an incredibly beautiful natural environment, and to each other.
Up river from us, backlit by sunlight, a fly fisherman cast again and again. His wet line glistened and lashed out like horizontal lightening. It was perhaps too breezy for trout to bite, but the silhouette of his attempt was lovely.
Husband indulged with homemade pizza taken from the oven just before leaving home. There was farmer’s market arugula as salad on top. And, there was champagne because bubbles create an optimal accompaniment with pizza. [Champagne: “Tasting the Stars”] [Wait Twenty Minutes Then Add Salt] A square of dark bittersweet chocolate accompanied last sips.
Clouds formed between the sinking sun and western mountains. Breezes blew them south and then new ones took their place. We settled in to see what would happen.
Rain happened. A misty, silky, spotty rain destined to subside quickly. Reluctantly we began to pack up.
Then, the almost certain finale to showers in the mountains lit up the sky behind us–a full rainbow that touched the meadow on both ends.
There it was–nature’s beautiful end to a serendipitous outing. It gave us more than we expected on a late August evening.