How I Found My Hakuna Matata

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Going on a safari was on my mother-in-law Joyce’s bucket list, not mine. Still, we gratefully accepted the invitation to accompany her. (We’re givers, I know.)

For a year we received e-mails from Joyce admonishing us what to do to prepare for the trip to Tanzania (not the least of which was practicing taking a shower with our mouths closed). Care packages of DEET and rain ponchos arrived at our house. I stored them in a drawer and hoped I wouldn’t forget where I’d put them many months later when it came time to pack.

The safari loomed in the future for so long. Now we have been and returned. It is over in time, but not gone.

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When you don’t know what to expect in an experience, you allow room for surprises. Sure, I expected that I would enjoy seeing a place on our planet unique in its preservation of land and animals. I expected that I would ooh and aah over elephants and giraffes and lions and baboons. I did not expect, however, that the pace of our journey, slow and in the moment, would linger quite so long when I returned to “real life.” Call it the Hakuna Matata Effect; it lasts.

I’m not speaking of the red dust that still clings to my suitcase. I’m speaking of the less tangible residue, like the first Swahili words we learned as we rushed to get everyone and six suitcases into a jeep on our way to the Arusha airstrip for a propeller flight to the Serengeti. “Pole pole,” he said (poh-lay poh-lay). “Slowly, slowly.” We’ll get there. Just breathe. It takes the same amount of time to move calmly as it does to feel rushed and to rush others.

I’m speaking of the melodious sound of Swahili, embodied in this ear worm of a song taught to us by our very patient driver/guide Ellison (and which essentially translates to, “What’s up, dude? Everything’s cool; no worries in Tanzania.”):

 

I’m speaking of my continued longing for the sound of only birds and animals and wind, instead of the sounds that fill my habitat: houses striving for perfection with incessant remodels; hammers and power saws; lawnmowers and leaf blowers; fire engine sirens; airplanes droning; electronic devices buzzing and dinging.

 

 

Mostly, I’m speaking of the perspective gained by traveling outside of my culture, which all-too-quickly fades upon reentry. For a week I was not constantly connected to cable “news.” For a week I watched animals who knew nothing of North Korea or Russia or the United States, who cared nothing about SAT Prep classes or Bar Mitzvah caterers or glitchy WiFi at the office. I am not saying I wish I were Maasai, or that I would like my world to constrict to hunting and gathering. I am saying I needed the reminder that some of my concerns are cuckoo creations of my cultural bubble. They have no intrinsic universal value, and I can choose which to ascribe to, and which to let go.

I cling to the residue of Tanzania. For a week, I was with my family, away from the push/pulls that animate our lives at home. For a week we lived a starkly different pace — on the go at 6 am, eating breakfast and lunch in the quiet of the bush, in bed at dark, falling asleep to those sounds of nature. For a week our eyes set upon the unfamiliar beauty of flat-topped acacias and rocky outcroppings that shelter lion cubs. And for a week we spent 8-10 hours bumping around in a jeep looking for glimpses of animal action, and peeing outside when Ellison decided the threat of lion or leopard attack was low. Joyce said it was the trip of a lifetime, and that she will never do it again.

Me? I’m ready to plan my return.

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P.S. Bonus video: Watch an elephant multi-task, and listen to our amazed commentary. And finally, the words to “Jambo buana” song, written out for us by Ellison.

 

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Seen through a Snowstorm: Creations Take On Their Own Life

We drove to Mammoth to celebrate my firstborn’s birthday: 15.

FIFTEEN. To you that may sound little, depending on your point of view, but indulge me. It’s as big as he’s ever been.

The weather conspired against us. It will snow all day, both days, with 50 mph winds. Lucky me, I’d decided in advance that I wasn’t skiing this time. It’s not my cup of cocoa, let’s say; I am preoccupied with falling, even before I put my boots on. My job today is ski support from the comfort of the lodge, writing and reading contentedly. Family bonus: I spare my husband having to worry about me while keeping track of the kids, too.

It’s not about the skiing, anyway, our trip. It’s about board games. It’s about meals together, and movies in the room. It’s even about the travel days, together in a car driving through California’s desert-to-mountain landscape. It’s the offhand conversations, singing with the radio, brothers watching TV shows sharing an iPad… and no fighting all day?! This is the good stuff. This is the good stuff. Did I mention 15?

At this moment I am sitting in the lodge looking out at near white-out conditions. My feet are cold despite two pairs of socks and boots. I’m supposed to be working on Novel 2. I’m in the first draft. I feel like I’m still learning how to write — in a good way — and hope to always feel that way. Bits of positive feedback for Shelter Us still trickles in, which feeds my determination to keep on writing. Like yesterday, I received an e-mail from a fellow She Writes Press author, Barbara Stark-Nemon, who had just read it and kindly shared with me the review she’d posted on Amazon and Goodreads. It began with a quote that I thought sounded so beautiful and then I realized, happily and with surprise, Duh, she’s quoting ME. I didn’t recognize my own words. My sentences took on their own life, they were not part of me anymore. They grew from me but became themselves.

I glance up and outside to the mountain. The glare is bright and my eyes take a moment to adjust. There’s the ski lift, there’s a tree, there’s the snow blowing across the sky. A faint body moves against the mountain through that snowy haze. I can’t see my boys, but I know they are out there, separate from me and gloriously growing into themselves, swooshing or falling all on their own.

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Home!

“Three weeks is too long,” was the grumbled consensus as we began the final leg of the book tour/vacation last week. We all would have been happy to come home then. But we gallantly submitted to the extra days of recreation — water park and lobster rolls and beach and…bookstores.

The bookstores! They are thriving, people! From Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, I visited 23 bookstores in 21 days.

Book Culture, NYC

Book Culture, NYC

Words, Maplewood, NJ

Watchung, Montclair, NJ

Watchung, Montclair, NJ

Elm Street Books, New Canaan, CT

Elm Street Books, New Canaan, CT

Doylestown Bookshop, Doylestown, PA.

Doylestown Bookshop, Doylestown, PA.

Some were quiet, others were bustling with summer readers, but there seemed to be a consensus among booksellers that an equilibrium has been reached, that the slaughter of the indies has ended.

Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, NY

Northshire Books, Saratoga Springs, NY

Northshire Books, Saratoga Springs, NY

Spotty Dog, Hudson, NY

Spotty Dog, Hudson, NY

The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, NY

The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, NY

Merritt Bookstore, Millbrook, NY

Merritt Bookstore, Millbrook, NY

Inquiring Minds, New Paltz, NY

Diane's Books, Greenwich, CT

Diane’s Books, Greenwich, CT

Main Street Books, Orleans, MA

Main Street Books, Orleans, MA

Booksmith, Orleans, MA

Booksmith, Orleans, MA

Where the Sidewalk Ends, Chatham, MA

Where the Sidewalk Ends, Chatham, MA

Brewster Books, Brewster,  MA

Brewster Books, Brewster, MA

This joyful news comes with some melancholy for me, because my local bookstore did not survive, a casualty of high rents and challenging times. I miss Village Books in Pacific Palisades. I miss the floor mural of authors. I miss the wall displaying what local book clubs were reading. I miss the chairs by the window, perfectly sunlit. I miss the children’s section. I miss the author readings, the folding chairs brought out for people packed in to hear writers — the famous, the local, and sometimes captured in one person. I miss having my favorite place in town, where some nights when I needed to leave the confines of my house I would walk just to look in its window.

I remember when I walked into the store in 2007, to deliver my pitch for a reading for Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood, a collection of stories and poems by twenty writers I had edited and published. When I started this project, I had no intention of creating book. I simply needed a creative outlet, as my life was dedicated to the care and feeding of two little children. As the project grew, I realized I had a moving, lasting work, so I learned how to publish it. Walking into the store, I had barely uttered, “I have a book” when owner Katie O’Laughlin broke into a huge smile and said, “We’ll have a reading!” I wanted to kneel and kiss her shoes for her generosity.

Village Books' last evening.

Katie addressing the crowd at Village Books’ last evening.

The absence of Village Books is the only blot on the joy of coming home. After being away for three weeks, everything is one degree less familiar than when we left, everything is precious: the unadorned glory of one’s own bed, its worn sheets singing their softness, not their wear and tear. The 4th of July streamers left in one tree. The weeds displaying their power. My not-so-little-anymore little one singing, “Being at home feels so so good! Being at home feels so so good!” Indeed, it does. And although my bookstore-next-door lives only in the hearts and memories of its many loyal customers, I’m thrilled to know that so many other indies are still going strong.

And I’m setting out to visit as many as I can. California…here I come.

Last Day on the Cape: So Many Towns and Bookstores, So Little Time

I think of myself as at least a tad bit worldly and well-traveled. So it came as a surprise to learn that Cape Cod is not one town. It is many towns, separated at the farthest ends by a two-hour drive.

This would have been good to know, as I’d allotted one day to visit Cape Cod’s indie bookstores. I’d have to forgo Wellfleet and Provincetown, and stretch just as far as Chatham and Brewster.

In my defense, this was an easy mistake to make. I’m an L.A. kid, descended from Eastern European Jews who did not build houses on the Cape in the 1900’s to pass down to me. (And those Cape Cod t-shirts do give off the “it’s-one-place” impression.) For me, summer meant day camps called Cali Camp and Tumbleweeds, and sleep away camps were in Malibu and Big Bear. Family weekends might be on Catalina or Coronado Island, not Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard (yes, I’ve now learned the difference between them, too).

So we picked two stores, in Chatham and Brewster, and set out toward Chatham first. We missed a turn and ended up rerouted north. No problem! We’d go first to Brewster. Except we missed the road to Brewster, which forced us to backtrack through a town we hadn’t planned to visit, Orleans. Great news. Orleans has two bookstores.

Picture perfect Main Street Books in Orleans

Main Street Books in Orleans.

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Erin, Lady, and Matt at Booksmith Musicsmith in Orleans.

That was my favorite wrong turn of the trip. (The kids kept playing Go Fish in the minivan. Seen one indie bookstore, seen ’em all, I guess.)

Go Fish.

Go Fish.

We finally arrived at Brewster Bookstore. It was packed with customers, and its summer event schedule was packed, too, with 8 author events in July, and 7 in August, including Alice Hoffman.

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Books and your local lawyer all at one place.

Bookseller Maddie at Brewster Bookstore

Bookseller Maddie at Brewster Bookstore

After lunch, we headed to Chatham, whose Where the Sidewalk Ends bookstore plans a drool-worthy summer of author literary events. Walking in, we were greeted by a vision fitting the final stop: on the front table of the store, Shelter Us shared space with Harper Lee and Anthony Doerr. Be still my heart.

This is a "pinch me" moment.

A “pinch me” moment at Where the Sidewalk Ends bookstore in Chatham, Mass.

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Nina and store owner Joanne took a moment away from helping their many customers to pose with Shelter Us.

My family left while I signed books (please go get one from this wonderful store, or order online if you want a signed copy) — and I found them at the ice cream store discussing the Soviet Union before the fall of communism. (True story.)

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We had completed the task. After another hour’s ride, back in our rented house, the kids wanted nothing more than to be left alone to (and with) their own devices. But it was our last night on Cape Cod, the sun had come out, and we were going to get some fresh air or else. We had to scream to get them out the door, and it was worth it.

We swam (even me). We played soccer (even me). We felt the delicious breath of salt air on our skin. We looked over a landscape so different from our California beaches, vibrant green marshes growing out of the sand, inlets of saltwater stretching toward scrub pines. I felt the tiniest bit more familiar with this place called Cape Cod, knowing well I had only scratched its surface.

(And still knowing nothing about that other exotic, mysterious-to-me place known as: The Hamptons.)

In Which a Book Tour Masquerades as a Hudson Valley Retreat, with a Surprise Finish

The last (and only) time I came remotely close to the Hudson Valley in New York was while racing from Vermont toward Pennsylvania, trying to stay a step ahead of Hurricane Irene. Danger tends to sprinkle itself through our travel.

We had wanted to return to this beautiful area ever since. As the last book event in New Jersey wound up, Christopher found a Bed & Breakfast in Rhinebeck, New York, that would be our home base for the next two nights.

The late sunlight of mid-July guided us to Whistlewood Farm Bed & Breakfast just as twilight descended. Oh me oh my. Consider this my hearty recommendation of this place, three miles outside of the town of Rhinebeck. Whistlewood Farm B&B not only offers creature comforts (comfy beds, lots of living space to stretch out, and homegrown, homemade breakfasts) but also creatures. We watched the horses have pedicures, fed the chickens, and unwound into the pace of life away from it all.

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In the morning, our host Maggy asked how many just-laid eggs we wanted, then pointed to the fresh baked blueberry muffins, sausage, and dollar pancakes. Thinking of what my Dad calls “preventative eating” — eat now so you won’t be hungry later — we said yes to everything, and figured that would last all day.

It worked. We drove all over, visiting small town bookstores, meeting booksellers and signing copies of Shelter Us. We visited Oblong Books in Rhinebeck (and could not pass by the Rhinebeck Aerodrome, to ogle biplanes and triplanes.) IMG_2505
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We visited the small town of Millbrook, which boasts the lovely Merritt Bookstore.

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We stopped at the Vanderbilt MansionIMG_7070 and gawked at its immensity, wondering what impulse compels some people (and peoples) to construct castles, while other peoples (say, Native Americans) would never deign to claim the land as theirs at all?

In keeping with that theme, we meandered the grounds of FDR’s home and Presidential Library in Hyde Park.

Just a thought.

The next day brought more small towns and more bookstores, including the charming town of Hudson’s Spotty Dog (books and ale).

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(Hudson, it is worth mentioning, rocks the eclectic, hip, artsy and funny, as in this store, Flower Kraut — selling flowers, sauerkraut, and “gifts” — and this sign outside of a motel.)

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We would not rest until reaching Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs, and sampled some of the famous waters.IMG_7099

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Our last day, we visited The Golden Notebook in Woodstock, woodstock

and Inquiring Minds in New Paltz.

inquiring minds new paltz

Before heading home for the long drive, we wanted to get some exercise.

In Woodstock, we hiked Overlook Mountain Trail, and were rewarded with beautiful views and a fine adrenaline rush — not from climbing the six-level tower at the top, and not from watching a rattlesnake slither across the path. It was from the bear.

The bear, whom I saw face to face when I peeked into the woods, curious about the little sounds I had heard, expecting perhaps to see a fawn, or a chipmunk. “Bear!” my brain said. “Bear,” my mouth said to Christopher. The syllable was not fully formed before I was scooting at twice my previous speed up the hill.

Yes, the Hudson Valley trip proved to be memorable for many reasons. Each bookstore had friendly, enthusiastic booksellers who welcomed this California author’s first novel. Each town had a distinct personality, even if they didn’t all have a stoplight. And everywhere we looked, wild nature in all its manifestations came out to greet us. Heading back to urban Philadelphia never sounded so good.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Swimming, Hiking, and Ducking Bombs in Israel

I didn’t notice the air raid siren. Everyone else in our tour group was evacuating the pool area and heading inside to the hotel’s bomb shelter, but I was caught up in an “ice-breaker” conversation.  My rabbi, dressed in her shorts and tank top for our first official day of a two-week tour, caught my eye, pointed to the sky, and said, “Rocket’s coming.”

Welcome, my friends, to Israel.

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Making the most of the bomb shelter.

We were in Tel Aviv, and Hamas had just fired the rockets that would set off war. Our group of 70-plus members of Kehillat Israel synagogue, including my kids, nieces, parents, and parents-in-law, had arrived the night before and our heads were still fogged by jet lag. After the “all clear” was announced, our cantor tried to reassure us by describing the Iron Dome missile defense system, and adding that the places we were visiting that day had ample bomb shelters.

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My niece, shaken but astute, asked, “What about while we’re on the bus?” Our Israeli guide answered, “If we are on the bus and there’s a siren, we get off, lie down in the road, and put our hands over our heads. Ready? Let’s go.”

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We went.

I could be blasé and tell you that we only went to bomb shelters twice, so yeah, you know, no biggie. I could tell you it was nothing to be informed where the bomb shelter was each time we checked in to a new hotel, or to download an app that alerts you when the Iron Dome intercepts rockets, and when it does not.

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On one level that would be the truth. Hamas’ daily barrage of rockets didn’t affect our trip much: We still went ziplining and rappelled down the Manara Cliff; we still swam in the Mediterranean and floated in the Dead Sea; we still prayed at the Western Wall and shopped for jewelry and Judaica in Jerusalem; we still ventured south to the Negev Desert to marvel at the geologic formation known as a “Machtesh Ramon” – a grand canyon-like wonder; we still visited Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust, and recalled the very reason for Israel’s existence, the constant battle to be.

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Selfies in Caesarea.


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Machtesh Ramon (and the beautiful Beresheet Hotel)

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Jerusalem

Welcome to Jerusalem

 

Boogieing on the Galilee

Boogieing on the Galilee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooling off in the Dan River, a source for the Jordan.

 

 

 

 

 

But on another level, to say it was no big deal would be a lie. The rockets affected me deeply. On our last night in Tel Aviv, for example, my kids asked if they could have room service for dinner. Under other circumstances I’d have pushed them to come out, to experience a new city. But my first thought was that in the hotel they would be safer, closer to a shelter, not exposed. It was an easy yes.

We had to decide if it was too risky for us adults to go out. We had to calculate the value of enjoying a summer night in Tel Aviv and the possibility of shrapnel landing on our heads. After all, we were told the Iron Dome was 90% effective, but there was still that pesky 10%.  We had to prioritize living or fear.

You know, the usual vacation decisions.

We went out to dinner. We came back unscathed. The tone of our visit was set: Life trumps.

As we enjoyed our adventures, I felt for family back home, who only saw images of rockets raining on Israel day and night, who didn’t see that for most of Israel, life went on as usual.

I felt for the people of Gaza, who Hamas sacrificed by pushing Israel to defend its people. I felt the frustration and hopelessness of it all – never more than when listening to Israeli Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh describe the futility of a peace process where one side’s leader can’t accept any negotiated peace without facing execution.

I brought home a keepsake from this trip, a bracelet with the words of the Jewish prayer Sh’ma engraved in silver. “God is One,” the prayer says. “We are all connected, we are all part of One,” my Rabbi elaborates. That’s pretty much the heart of it, no matter what God, or no god, you believe in.

“Wear the bracelet for protection,” the saleslady had said when I tightened it around my wrist.

No prayer or band of silver can protect me. I wear it anyway. I say it anyway. I close my eyes and imagine I am wrapping it around the world’s wrist, a dome of protection over every last one of us, all children of this earth.

 

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My niece puts her prayer in the Western Wall.

Dare to Dream, and Do

I turned on the computer with every good intention to go straight to my Word file and work on revising the book I mentioned yesterday.

Except, somehow, I ended up on Facebook.

It worked out, because a friend posted this.

Mary Oliver quote graphic

It reminded me of my post last week on perspective, and the words I attributed to Gloria Steinem, that she loves not knowing what comes next, because it might be wonderful.

And that’s what I wanted to say today. Yesterday, in the midst of my self-doubt-y mood that we all have from time to time, I carelessly referred to my book as being about “Recession and Moving and other good stuff.” That’s not quite right. That sounds so “ugh.” And I owe it to the book, and to you, to let you know that the book is very NOT ugh. It’s about choosing joy, taking risks, having fun, traveling with family, discovering new favorite places, rope swinging, and eating a hell of a lot of ice cream.

That’s what “other good stuff” means.

Writing the book has been so much fun because it lets me travel back to those places and feelings. Yesterday I was in the thick of an adrenaline rush from innertubing in the Delaware River in a rainstorm.

Delware River Tubing

Today I may be in New York’s Chinatown.

Chinatown

Tomorrow, who knows? It will probably involve ice cream.

Ben & Jerry's

I’m getting started right now. Today’s mantra? Close Facebook. Disconnect Firefox. Hunker down. Make this day one of dreaming and doing.

“It Might Be Wonderful”

I was searching for the source of a quote I read years ago, whose essence has stuck with me, if not it’s precise language. It was attributed to Gloria Steinem.

She said, “The great thing about not knowing what comes next…” (and I thought, Yes? Yes? What is it? Please tell me what’s great about all this not knowing business!!) “…is that it might be wonderful.”

“That’s all? It might be wonderful?” Insufficient payoff for the terrible heaviness of not knowing.

I’ve spent much of the past few years trying to live into her radically optimistic world view. For me, not knowing what came next was painful, almost unbearable. In the cosmic sense, of course, none of us knows what’s next (earthquake, or flood, or call from the Nobel committee, etc.). But much of the time we think we do. We have enough information at least to predict what next month or next year brings. For me, the decision to sell our house a few years ago launched us on a journey of major not knowing. I wanted the quote as a lead-in to the book I’m working on about that journey.

moving day

Because the journey has moved me toward understanding that quote. It has taught me that not knowing becomes easier.

Riverside Park at sunset

Not easy, but easier. I try to live more in the second half of Gloria’s statement than in the first. It might be wonderful.

Cannonball into Merry Meeting Lake, New Hampshire

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Laura on Rope Swing, Lake Todd (Newbury, NH)

Yeah, that’s right. And it’s up to us to make it wonderful.

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I didn’t find that quote today, but I did find a rich and deep interview of a curious and brilliant mind. I give you Maria Shriver interviewing Gloria Steinem, and two of my favorite passages from their conversation:

The most hopeful.

SHRIVER: Do you think that you ran a revolution? Do you think it was successful?

STEINEM: Well, first of all, I think we’ve just begun. If you think about the Suffrage Movement as a precedent, it took more than 100 years to get the vote and for that movement itself to run a certain course. We’re only about 40 years into this movement, so this particular wave of change certainly has a long way to go. It’s not in the past.

The most daunting.

SHRIVER: Is there some part of your life that you think represents a cautionary tale?

STEINEM: I think the biggest thing is probably that I wasted time.

SHRIVER: You feel like you wasted time? In what way?

STEINEM: I continued for too long to do things that I already knew how to do, or to write stories that I was assigned instead of fighting for stories that I couldn’t get, or doing ones that I thought were important on my own. The wasting of time is the thing I worry about the most. Because time is all there is.

You heard her. Back to work.

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http://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/gloria-steinem/

Thieving Thursday: Painter Erin Hanson…Wow

We’re going to play word association today.

I say “paintings” you say “gallery” or “canvases” or, some of you, “finger”.

I say “landscapes” you say “snooze” or “ho-hum” or “yawn”. It’s okay, you’re not alone — why else would hotels put ocean or farm landscapes on the walls, if not to help escort you into sleepy-land?

I don’t claim to understand why something that is awe-inspiringly beautiful in person — a glowing sunset over the Pacific, for example — is trite when captured literally in a painting. It just is. So imagine the thrill and surprise when, in the midst of a wine-tasting weekend in Paso Robles, I walked into a gallery showing the work of Erin Hanson and saw this:

Erin Hanson print

And this:

Erin Hanson print2

And this:

Erin Hanson print 3

Painter Erin Hanson doesn’t replicate the colors we see, but the emotion we feel seeing them. So Paso Robles’ green and brown hills and vineyards become purple and orange and red (but really, with all the better Crayola names and nuances of purple and orange and red). Her landscapes stayed with me.

So today, I’m sharing her with you.  www.erinhanson.com

Photos on a computer screen don’t begin to capture the effect they have in person, which is is making you want to take all of them home, but it’s too good not to try. Happy Thieving Thursday, one and all.

 

 

 

The Long Ride Home: Vermont to California (by way of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia and D.C.)

Moving from Stowe to Burlington, Vermont, meant moving up in population size from 5,000-ish to 40,000-ish. Like astronauts acclimating to earth’s gravitational pull after time in space, we were visiting increasingly larger places so that Los Angeles would not crack … Continue reading