Thoughts made by hand

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[You might enjoy other posts about hand-writing: "By hand, by heart" and "Sign on the dotted line."]

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Lunch with the farm girls

When I graduated from high school, my Mom’s “gift” to me was to take me and my brother on a trip to South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. She was conducting academic research on Laura Ingalls Wilder. She had some contacts who could put her in touch with people who’d known Laura and her daughter Rose, and they would be our starting points, or stopping points, as it were, along our drive.

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In few words, it was a trip that changed my life. I fell in love with the prairie and the people, and decided that I would do a 180 on my choice of university. (I was slated to go to the University of Virginia, but was not very enthusiastic about it. I’d wanted to go North.) But now, No. I would go to South Dakota State in Brookings and follow their program of Environmental Studies. My father thought I was insane and basically threatened to disown me. “No daughter of mine is going to school in South Dakota.”

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This was the worst exchange I’d ever had with my father. (It would, in fact, be the worst exchange I would ever have with him). I knew he loved me; I knew he could not see my point of view. I knew that “learning” to him meant certain things. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Had degrees from William & Mary, Harvard and University of Virginia. I knew that he thought I had great potential. I’d been an excellent high school student. Almost too good. He was used to that level of performance. I was sick of it (as time would tell!)

He did not picture me on the prairie, raising livestock and tow-headed babies. He did not. He didn’t know that people have myths inside them, and that my steady girlhood diet of the Little House on the Prairie books and the beautiful writings of Willa Cather had written a myth inside me about open spaces. He forgot that my mother (his ex-wife for God’s sake!) was raised on a chicken farm, that her uncle was a dairy farmer, that her other uncle was an accountant for the (then) booming Curles Neck Dairy outside Richmond, Virginia. He didn’t know (how could he have forgotten?) that Mother’s “people” had entertained us with hayrides and boiled sweet corn yanked right of the high-as-an-elephant’s-eye stalk. He’d overlooked the fact that some residue might still be in my blood. He didn’t know about my myth.

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I gave in to him. I let him be right. I was a hard-headed girl, but I didn’t want a family torn asunder over a summer adventure. Besides, deep inside, I knew it was a risky choice, and maybe it was easier to avoid the conflict and the risk at the same time. So, I went to U.Va. and resisted the learning that was spread out in front of me, until reading and literature gave me some peace. I discovered William Carlos Williams, thanks to a brilliant professor named Anne Fisher, and my sense of being an American began to express itself to me in new and exciting ways. She made us keep a journal. She uncovered my myth; in fact, it was she who called it that, and made me realize that it would give me power.

By the time I finished college, I didn’t want to go back to the Plains. Hell, I didn’t know what I wanted. Didn’t really know where to go from where I was, at all. (That happens a lot when you’re young, doesn’t it?) But I’d seen the grasses that looked like an ocean, and chatted with friendly cows from the road, and breathed in deep the smell of hogs (and liked it!), and visited farm families that fried up 2 dozen eggs at a time for breakfast (those boys had to eat!) and I knew that I would always love the idea of that place. That I’d always go there in my head.  I wanted to know America in all its nooks and crannies. My friends were trotting off to Europe to find themselves; I had no interest in that.

Of course, I live in Italy. Life is funny that way. I have no regrets. I have been filled up with wonder over and over and over again.

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Now, my dream is not to let plants die on my urban balcony. Now my dream is to get to our little house in France, every chance I get so that I can gaze upon the wheat fields that rise up behind us even if they don’t belong to us, and dirty my hands in the little plot that does. I content myself with my flower beds and my herb garden, which I try to whip into shape, if only seasonally. It’s funny how life doesn’t give you exactly what you wanted once-upon-a-time, but it does address the needs. It hears your heart. In wild circling motions it takes you far afield of what you had in mind, but gives you, I think, more.

This is partly, just partly, why I love reading two farm blogs in particular—The Kitchens Garden and Life on a Colorado Farm. I would read more (I love them), but two is what I have time for, and I’ve grown attached to their stories, their animals, their surroundings and the women who write them. They live my Road Not Taken. That’s why I’m inviting them (as guests of honor) and all of you to lunch today.

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Every choice we make is a process of elimination. For a woman who decides to put roots down right where she is, she’s making a choice not to globe-trot, but to go deeper. A man who leaves his native land far behind, is choosing, consciously, to let many things go so that he may encounter many things. If we live in the city, we give up the country. If we live in the country, it’s obvious what we don’t have. And there are probably many people, like me, who started out with one myth, only to have it layered over with many others. This building-up of hopes, dreams and selves creates our personal internal wealth, but it also causes pain sometimes.

The blogosphere helps soothe the discomfort of thinking about the Road(s) Not Taken or the Roads Traveled Long Ago. Many people dream of Italy. Many people come, but can’t stay. I didn’t dream of it, yet here I am. It had something else I dreamed of: Love. And when that myth starts becoming a reality, you perk up and pay attention and go where it leads. So today, the Italian lunch is on me. Put on the clothes that make you the happiest, and pull up a seat. We’ll talk of our many lives, and we’ll celebrate where we are right this minute.

I’m taking you to La Rimessa in Mariano Comense between Milan and Como. And since all our lives have been experimental journeys and every great meal is an experimental journey too, we’re having their innovative menu which I had the pleasure of “testing” two weekend’s ago. Everything about it surprised and humbled me:

• Calamari alla griglia ripieni di buseca con crema di patate allo zenzero (Grilled calamari stuffed with tripe, served over a cream of potato and ginger)

• Gnocchi di barbabietola crema all’erborinato di capra e scaglie di cioccolato al 99% (Beet gnocchi with gorgonzola of goat’s milk and shavings of 99% dark chocolate)

• Mondeghili di cinghiale con purea di patate e verza cappuccio viola (Meatballs of wild boar with puré of potato and violet savoy cabbage)

• Ice cream made from the milk of alpine cows and toasted sesame.

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A story for a winter day

Adam Dant, London illustrator from Supposed Histories on Vimeo, and his story of the Island of Elba and some very special birds. Just what I needed to hear this morning in wintery Milan. True or not true? Who cares…it takes the mind away to a warmer place and time.

Below: My own memories of Elba. Ahhhh. So nice.

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Of walking, webs, halos and sticks

Dear You and You and You and You and You…

Today has been a day full of the oddest, end-of-the-year joy. Just happiness like that: Boom. As if a massive house-cleaning took place and suddenly it all feels sort of new even though it isn’t. I was sick for Christmas, as I often was when I was young, so it was with a great primitive, animal joy that I energetically walked out into the world yesterday feeling like a new person just in time for a new year. And the good feeling stuck…

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I walked and walked, just for the sheer joy of feeling my legs do that pendulum thing legs do. Ticking and tocking down the country road, early enough in the morning for the light to be low and the fog to be creeping around like a magic, flying blanket, covering things in softness and a photoshoppy haze.

The brambles that are cut short between the road and the railroad tracks are completely leafless now, but at that hour of the day every one was jeweled with dew. And every yard or so, was a beautiful perfect spider web. I am fascinated by spiders and their webs, and have always felt that these animals had a sort of symbolic power for me. But I have never seen any webs like these. Not this perfect. Not this tiny (not one was bigger than a hand-span.) And not this perfectly lit.

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I don’t know what kind of spider wove these. And even as I snapped away, I never saw the creators sitting in the midst of their homes/traps. It seemed as if they’d all been abandoned. Maybe the spiders have moved to warmer vacation webs in slightly more southerly locations. Who knows. And I saw no insects trapped in these webs. Only I was trapped. Couldn’t stop looking, marveling, gasping with delight.

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At the end of the road I turned toward the canal and circled back around between the canal and the fields on the far side. Beginning this leg on a rise, I was surprised to look down and see my own shadow (with my fur bomber hat) spreading like a giant, alien (or angel) shape across the baby plants hanging on in the dewy cold. I felt bigger than life for a moment. Lit, even, by a halo around my head. Even as I walked and my shadow shortened, the halo persisted, following me and glowing like mad.

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Does anyone know why that happens? I’ve just read today’s post on thekitchensgarden and I notice that in the first picture there’s a halo around Celi’s head too. What is the explanation for this? Can anyone tell me?

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Enjoying my undeserved halo and my beautiful natural surroundings, I took a last look at the two trees, standing tall and alone in the middle of the field, one playing hide-and-seek behind the other, and turned back. There on the ground was a big stick, clearly washed along by the canal…its bark had been peeled away and it had the smooth story-telling skin of driftwood that I can never resist. I picked it up and brought it home with me.

Every girl needs a good stick, don’t you think?

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Posted in AROUND US, FRANCE | 12 Comments

Holiday cooking and freedom from the tyranny of food photography

Are you sick of beautiful food photography? I am. That’s why I love it when Celi posts a picture of a savory pie or a loaf of bread that she thinks isn’t lit well, yet we all know how delicious it is. It’s about how good it is to eat, not how good it is to look at, right?

I’m guilty on this count. I mean, I’m an art director by trade. I’m incessantly drawn to things that look amazing. But enough is enough. We are surrounded by and drowning in other people’s pictures of “perfect food” (perfect life, in fact). And, excuse me, but have you noticed how many food stylists are now suddenly experts on food preparation and have published cookbooks? They may be very good home cooks, but I am here to remind you that food styling and actual culinary art are two very different things. In fact, food styling relies on techniques that purposefully aren’t related to the actual cooked food in order to make it look seductive. Let’s be honest, some things just weren’t meant to be garnished with radishes no matter how pretty that pinky-red skin is!

And then there’s this. We cook out of passion, love, necessity and hunger. We’re not all willing participants in an on-going, reality show in which our technique and our presentation are up for judgment. The judgment occurs on the plate and on the palate. Our prizes are appreciative sighs, requests for more, eyes rolling back contentedly in tandem with pats on a warm, nap-ready stomach.

I knew something was badly and comically wrong when my sister-in-law opened a beautiful (as in visually rich) cookbook I’d given her for Christmas, and her husband innocently asked, “Where did you hear about this book, Charlotte? Is it good?” and I couldn’t answer because, in truth, I’d run into it while searching for food photography for a freelance project I was working on! Guilty as charged!! It was delicious looking, but I couldn’t begin to attest to the validity of the recipes!

Julian Barnes was already complaining about this in his fantastic 2003 book, The Pedant in the Kitchen. If you love cooking and reading about cooking, it’s a must read. As his website suggests, and this is an understatement, “The Pedant in the Kitchen is a perfect comfort for anyone who has ever been defeated by a cookbook.” Here, in an article for the Guardian, same year, he points out that even “real” photography (the type used in Nigel Slater’s shamelessly hearty Real Cooking) is misleading. A chef’s—or practiced cook’s—real hands, real technique and real negligence are nothing compared to our own. We fall short even when we’re being led to believe, visually, that such a thing is impossible.

This year I was saved by a cookbook (Sam Sifton’s Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well) that rocketed into the top of my all-time favorites within 5 minutes of cracking the cover. There’s not a photograph in the book, and despite our maniacal and ADHD-induced need for the immediate gratification of imagery, this book seduces with words, advice and solid, easy to follow recipes. Three days before Thanksgiving, I read it cover to cover in nearly a single sitting, and couldn’t wait to get underway with the holiday preparations.

I also keep three dog-eared books by Elizabeth David that were given to me by my dear friend and unassailable cook, Julia Leonard, which, like Sifton’s jewel, describe food and how to prepare it without mucking about with even one picture. David “talked” me through a masterful fish stew, which is miraculous considering I have no mastery of making such a dish at all. But most of all—again like Sifton, Barnes, Reichl (Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table) and M.F.K. Fisher—she writes about food in a loving, reassuring and thorough way that makes you fall in love with the idea of engaging with it, because you know that something seriously good (not camera-ready) will come of it. The pressure is gone. No Hipstamatic, no Instagram, no “likes”/tweets/shares, nothing necessarily blog-worthy at all…just amazing, personally memorable food.

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The aftermath of thanks: More of the same

Several years ago, I read a pair of dueling editorial in the New York Times, one of which lambasted the conventional wisdom of resolution-making to usher in the New Year. The article’s main point was that there is a tried and true link between our overblown best-intentions, our inevitable expectations of ourselves and the ensuing disappointment (in many cases out-and-out depression). Why aren’t we more than we are? Why can’t we do what we set out to do, be who we set out to be?

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The writer went on to propose that the wiser use of that time would be to take stock and give thanks. Apparently, there is ample evidence that people who tend to count their blessings, also tend to feel, well, that they have something to count! Consciously taking into consideration what goodness resides in your life, amplifies your awareness of it, thus making you, in a word, happier.

In other much simpler words which I’ve just heard in David Steindl-Rast‘s TED talk, “Being happy doesn’t make you grateful. Being grateful makes you happy.” Yes! That’s the way to put it best.

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So. Thanksgiving. Giving thanks. I try to do this routinely. As middle age has crept up on me, I’ve noticed that the stuff that keeps one up at night and without breath during the day seems to multiply and intensify at an alarming rate. Walking helps. Cutting down on caffeine helps. Wine, in the right doses, helps (Wrong doses? The opposite.) Physical contact—wordless expressions of love—help.

But stopping and being glad for the good stuff really, really helps.

Recently, I’ve actually managed to send myself back to sleep by silently droning through the list of things that DON’T need to be worried about. “I am grateful that there is plenty of food in the refrigerator…I am grateful that right this minute, no one I know and love is in the hospital…I am grateful that the elderly in my family are safe and loved…I am grateful that my children don’t call me by my first name…I am grateful that I survived my ownership of a 1964 Corvair convertible (unsafe at any speed) from the ages of 25-30.

Etcetera.

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People often ask me if, living in Italy, I celebrate Thanksgiving. My Cancerian answer is yes and no. Some years I do, and some years I don’t. I’m an idealist about these things, and it’s not a tradition that I want to experience wholly or partially lost in translation. My children only sort of get it, though my husband totally appreciates it. It’s the one American holiday that approximates almost all of the Italian ones: It’s about family. It’s about savoring good food and good company. It’s about living, rooted, in the season’s bounty. It’s about sacrificing hours in the kitchen because you want to nourish other people. And then it’s about sitting around together and being grateful for all of the above.

Sometimes, some years, we ritualize that. And some years we don’t. This year I did my best. Carrot soup (the requisite orange thing), roasted turkey, sausage apple and sage dressing, gravy, brussels sprouts, green beans, and apple pie. it was eaten with gusto and appreciation. The flavors are long gone, but I’m trying to keep the Thanks-giving part of that one day a daily affair.

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Tomorrow is Christmas. And here I sit quietly filing through some recent experiences that brought ridiculous, non-proportionate happiness. Some of them are scattered randomly throughout this post. A purple cauliflower that turned turquoise during cooking, but ended up a dusty rose color, mixed with anchovies, garlic and pasta. A frost-bitten field of unpruned hydrangeas. (The first cold of  the year felt pure and clean. We needed it.)

An endless, experimental oyster dinner with my love, for which there was a different Italian wine for every non-Italian, cold-water course. Oysters, in all their slimy and briny glory, from many French estuaries, but also from Ireland and the Netherlands. My first “polenta pasticciata,” a heady mixture of polenta and gorgonzola, baked in the oven and served alongside roasted vegetables to appreciative silence on a cold day.

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Garments—so naturally and beautifully formed—left casually modeled by two headless mannequins on a sidewalk in Como. And that dear dear city itself, which I look forward to visiting again, with its jewel of a lake, hidden between mountains, and its human-sized walled city which encloses one in a dignified embrace. And two book covers in a single display of Como’s Ubik bookstore that seemed to capture the essence of life: finding balance and stillness, staying on one’s toes, and trying (trying) to strike an insouciant, “I meant to do that” pose.

May you all, whoever and wherever you are, have a holiday full of good memories, health, sustaining thoughts and dreams, and loveliness in the extraordinary and banal details of your every-day loves and lives.

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Postcards #21-32: Twelve days of Christmas

If you’re like me and I’m betting you are, you’re finding these last two weeks before Christmas just a little bit much. Do, do, do. Rush, rush, rush. Work work work. Be all things to all people while neglecting your poor old blog.

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I was feeling just a touch pressed by it all, when a campaign I did for an Italian shoe company about 5 years ago sprang to mind. This brand—which shall remain nameless—was all about comfort. So off I ran with that concept. Needless to say, they found my approach “too American,” so I stuck it in the file of “dead stuff I still like.” Today, I bring them back out, blow the dust off, and offer them to you as humble, blood-pressure-lowering gifts to carry you through the holidays.

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NOTE: Technically, the Twelve Days of Christmas begin on Christmas day, but it’s never too early to practice feeling good.

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Cardboard world

It was love at first sight. A beguiling little store tucked into a corner of Como called Gloook where most everything is made from recycled cardboard. (Gloook is just one brand of a small design firm, Alpac.) These furnishings are surprisingly strong and polished and in many cases exactly what you’d want. A tactile person’s haven…I wanted to touch and experience everything. They never said “Don’t touch,” and they even offered us a cup of coffee. Here’s their entire catalog of products. Nice. Human. Unpretentious. I like that.

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How to cook octopus

(OK, Finny, if you are reading this, it is NOT for you. We’re talking fresh-out-of-the-sea, wobbly, squiggly, suckery, floppy, tentacle-y, eight-leggedy edibleness. That said, it does not have a fishy taste at all, so I’m thinking you might actually like it—assuming you were, say, blindfolded—but I’m not holding my breath. I know what you’re muttering to yourself already.)

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Yes, here he (or she—how on earth do you determine the sex of an octopus?) is, fresh out of his—or her—clean, white, paper wrapping from the fishmonger. I rarely buy anything without asking advice about how to cook it. Even if I know, it’s always fun to hear another person’s take. With Octopussy, the advice was as follows:

Place 1 carrot, 1 onion, 1 stick of celery and one dried peperoncino in a large pot of water, along with a spoon of sea salt tossed in for good measure. When the water has just started appena appena to boil with the first tiny bubbles rising from the bottom of the pan, take your cleaned polipo and dip him/her three times into the hot water, while muttering, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” No wait, that’s the wrong ritual. Just dip three times, muttering nothing, then let the squiggly creature fall unceremoniously into the boiling water for 40 minutes of cooking.

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(Do you see that head sac? It’s been turned inside out with cleaning. To do the ritual dipping, you just place the head of the octopus on the end of your wooden spoon and let it dangle—1, 2, 3 times—into the water. You can see in the second of these last two pictures how, just after the three dips, the octopus has begun to change color and become firm. The tentacles, at first so slimy and formless, spiral into lovely concentric curls.)

Don’t let the water boil hard, but rather encourage it to stay at a persistent simmer for 40 minutes. At the end of that time, turn off the burner, cover the pot and let the octopus sit in his water until he/she, the water and the pot have cooled considerably. The fishmonger explained to me that in the best of all scenarios, I would do as the restaurants do, cook the little sea monster at night, and leave him in the water ’til morning—a method which supposedly renders the tenderest bites possible. I didn’t have that much time. I cooked mine after lunch and we had it for dinner, and I have to say, already, it was super—to the eighth power—yummy.

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I served mine with lentils, but classic preparations include a tepid salad of octopus and boiled potatoes (tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt and perhaps finely chopped parsley if you like)—my favorite in assoluto, or served over a purée of chick peas. If you are interested in either of these recipes, I will be happy to find them for you! But, believe me, if you take the cooked octopus, slice it, and dress it simply with olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt, it will not disappoint. It’s tender, almost sweet—utterly delectable. Promise.

Posted in ITALY, SAVORING | Tagged , | 19 Comments

When in doubt, I make something…

Years ago, I lived through the death of someone dear to me largely by cleaning house and arranging things in a pleasing way.  I wanted to cast my eye about and see loveliness—everywhere. The therapist I was seeing off and on at the time (y’know, maintenance) remarked that I coped by “weaving the threads of my anxiety and sadness into something beautiful.” For years, I put the emphasis on the word “beauty,” because it is true: I do love beauty and give myself over to its sway willingly.

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I’m not talking about perfect beauty so much as I am referring to an inherent quality in things, events, ephemera and people that speaks directly to the soul and is hard to pin down in the final analysis. Beauty that breaks your heart and puts it back together again. Beauty that gives reason where it seems to be lacking. Beauty that, on sight, makes us feel balanced and is if things are right with the world after all. Beauty that grows out of imperfection. Flawed beauty. Accidental beauty. Spontaneous beauty. Simple beauty. It’s hard to put this into words, of course, because it really defies description even though you all know what I’m talking about.

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So, yes, beauty is important to me. But I’ve realized after many years, that the more significant part of the therapist’s statement wasn’t the beauty bit. It was the part about “weaving”—doing something, making something out of something else—taking all those feelings that are so hard to hold inside yourself, and transforming them through almost any creative act whatsoever into something else. A vase of cut flowers. A quilt. A typographic solution. A crocheted bag. A beautifully clean closet. A new business idea. A blog post. A handwritten letter. A nourishing meal.

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Making things, or at least trying to, is my drug. It lifts me up when all else will fail. The entire contents of a pharmacy are zero to me compared to creating something where, before, there was nothing. Even if that something is just an idea. A scribble. A plan. I’m good at starting things, but not always good at finishing them.

(I don’t think I’m alone in this. So many of you write beautiful blogs and take stunning pictures. And I know you’re not in it for the self-promotion. There’s something about just doing those two things—isn’t there?—writing and photographing—that helps set us straight. And so many of you make so much else besides…beautiful homes, delicious dishes, chicken houses, gardens, new business plans, mini-empires. Some of you make mockery of disease in the most stunning act of creativity and daring of all!)

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I suppose this is why, in the end, I chose advertising as a way to make a living. I didn’t relish the poverty of being an artist, but I knew that I needed to be called upon to make things. To realize something that sprang from a creative inspiration. It’s why, too, I tried to do it differently, injecting beauty when and where I could, and it’s the reason I was lucky to land in a place that conducted (and still does) this unwieldy and often ugly business with great finesse and relative enlightenment. It helped that there were deadlines, and people standing by to make me meet them. It helped that when one project finished, there were always three more.

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For years now, my husband and I have both freelanced—his projects arriving from all corners of the globe. So our work comes and goes, riding the waves of geopolitical events, constant technological changes and economic crises. This is not a good time. It’s a challenging time. But I’m not complaining. When we’re not making things for pay, we have time to dream up and make other things. Who knows what will grow out of it. Who knows what the sleepless nights, as full of wonder as they are of worry, will weave themselves into.

A new career? A knitted sock? A story to tell you? I don’t know yet. But I will, and when I do, you’ll be among the first to know. Have a lovely day, OK?

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