Monday, October 5, 2015

Raised with the Ragnarok: Experiencing Death as the Essence of Life

"After the sun swallows the Earth, will Pokemons live on another planet?"

This is the kind of question my daughter asks me on a regular basis (even when there hasn't just been a super blood moon--How metal was that??). She seems to have a cheerfully apocalyptic worldview--that although we're all going to die in the end, that means any wonderful thing is possible in the next cycle of time.

As a Wolf Mother, this brave and optimistic view on mortality gives me peace.

My husband and I believe that death is not the opposite of life; it is a part of life's natural flow. Although there are biological reasons why we all fear death at some level, it is not something we should fear thinking or talking about, and there is nothing scary in the concept of "after death." As Nabokov wisely points out at the opening of his autobiography, it's the same as not being alive yet, and nobody looks back on the time before their own conception with horror.

It is true and unavoidable that death comes with grief, sadness, and other unpleasant realities. So in our family, we treat death just like every other difficult topic, such as racism, religious differences, and reproduction--with non-anxious mindfulness. We try to respond to all our daughter's questions with calm warmth so that she never starts to think any topic is too scary for Mommy and Daddy to discuss with her. We encourage our daughter to ask questions about, think about, and explore her feelings about every difficult topic she can imagine, so that she can grow up without developing a bunch of pathological anxieties or repressed fears that she feels her parents are unable to face.

And knowing that modeling is the best way to encourage a child to talk, think, and express feelings about a topic, we are aware that dealing with our own baggage is necessary to raise a non-anxious child.

One way that we honor our grief and other feelings about death is to celebrate the Day of the Dead in our home. The year of our wedding in 2007, my husband and I visited the family of our maid of honor, Esperanzita, who offered to host us through Dia de muertos. We visited the markets selling giant marigolds, papel picado, copal incense, calaveritas made of sugar, and colorful confections made to look like tiny feasts and indulgent treats for the dead. We nearly had the living breath sucked out of us in an encounter with Santa Muerte. We listened to pop songs and pop covers of traditional folk songs sung cheerfully, cheekily, and passionately about death, grief, and loss. We stood in crowds of mourners at public ofrendas in the former palaces of French and Spanish colonists, among paper-mache figures of every size and every attitude, from awe-inspiring to comical.

At the home of Esperanza's Roman Catholic parents, we watched the family build an altar to the memories of lost loved ones--complete with a crucifix, which made Esperanza uneasy but without which Esperanza's father felt uneasy. Because Day of the Dead is a folk tradition that lives outside the lines of official religious observance, one that reaches out and around to embrace that which is shadowy, mysterious, and impossible to reconcile, in loving warmth and light.

The experience touched us profoundly, and we brought it back with us--mostly in our hearts, as the materials used in the rituals--pan de muerto, comfort foods, fresh flowers and fruits, burning resin, delicate paper lacework, handicrafts made of sugar--are appropriately perishable. Like all of life, like everything precious and savored, they die.

We have developed our own Midwestern adaptation of this regionally diverse, culturally fluid festival. Each year, we build the altar in a different position of our home, using different materials. We cover it with mums and autumn leaves, different kinds of incense, and the colors of a Michigan autumn, where the oranges of fall come from gourds and tree leaves instead of fields and vines laden with flowers. We invite in the ghosts of our grief with a trail of maple leaves instead of bright petals.

The last time we visited my husband's father's grave in the family plot, a cousin had decorated the graves with thoughtfully chosen, humorous garden gnomes that corresponded to each deceased family member's personality. We thought it was touching and comforting, bringing the humor and lovable spirits of the departed to light; others felt it was sacrilegious or somehow disrespectful. Sometimes, it is impossible to reconcile one person's grief with another's.

But the truth is that we all grieve. We all die. And we all create stories to comfort us in the darkness of the unknown.

The next time we drove past a cemetery, our daughter called out, "Look! It's one of Grandpa John's sculpture gardens."

In moments of beauty like this, I feel the courage to embrace death as one with life. I lay the Celtic cross on my own altar, pagan symbol of fertility resurrected from cultural obscurity as a symbol of hope for immortality, and I take comfort in the regenerative powers of the human soul that extend the essence of our lives, through our children and our ideas and our love and our creations, beyond the limits of our mortality.

Until the Ragnarok!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Bohemian Seasonal Style for the Starving Artist

I'm as much of an anti-consumerist as the next financially-creative-by-necessity person, but as an artist, I just need to have fresh beauty around me sometimes. And I've worked out a pretty good system for obtaining bursts of that "updated" feeling in my home and wardrobe without buying a bunch of stuff every season. I've taken a cue from one of my historical muses, the Marchesa di Casati, to dive right into the glamorization of my own poverty, in the grand style of La Boheme.

stage design by Reginald Gray for the opera La Boheme

First of all, I embrace the seasonal updates that nature provides free of charge. As a lifelong Midwesterner, I love the change of seasons--especially fall! I love the crisp, tangy flavor of the air. I love the warm, bold colors of nature, which can be gathered right out of the yard and pressed, strung, or arranged in vases. I love the electric sensation of newness all around as the dreamy summer starts to rust.

Time to get out the snuggly sweaters and chunky tweeds! Time to pile up furs and knit shawls in the living room! Time to light a fire in the fireplace! There is a pleasant feeling of renewal blended with cozy tradition that comes from simply pulling fall things out of storage.

Now let's talk about that storage. There is a lot of advice out there urging us to keep very few articles of clothing in our closets. There are popular tips to throw out anything we haven't worn in a year or anything that isn't our current size.

I call foul on this supposedly minimalist closet management system. There are parts of it I find useful; of course, it isn't good to hang onto clutter that you're never going to wear again. A bedroom closet is no place to store bulky items solely for their sentimental value. (My wedding dress, for example, is in the attic.) Items that are worn out or damaged beyond repair, or which you are sure you will never again wear, should certainly be tossed. Dresses that look beautiful on the hanger or on someone else but not on you--to the thrift store they go.

But anything you haven't worn in a year? I say, it depends on why you haven't worn it this year. In my book, there are definite exceptions to that rule.

Oversized checks are so on trend--again!
What if it's something you love, that looks great on you and makes you feel good, but it isn't this year's style? ALL FASHION RISES LIKE THE UNDEAD SOMEDAY. If you love something and it's still perfectly good, just dated, and you live in a non-tiny house and do not plan on moving for many years, stash it in a pest-proof, dry container with a label like "'80s Hits" and store it in the basement or attic. I'm pleased that I kept all my 1990s dresses, skirts, and concert t-shirts, because they are back in style and bring back memories of friskier years. Some things that you pull out of storage 20 years later may be styles you realize you no longer like, or which don't fit your body, personality, or lifestyle anymore. In that case, your kid or friend or a vintage-loving stranger may get a big kick out of your fashion time capsule. You might even be able to sell your retro digs on eBay.

Some things cycle in and out of fashion quickly, every two or three years, like handbag colors and shoe toe shapes. Whatever. Arrange them in an organized manner in the farthest reaches of your closet, where they are out of sight but easy to find again another season.

And what about things that don't fit? If it's never fit you properly, either tailor it or get rid of it. But if your weight fluctuates, take out all the items that are too big or too small and store them in size-labeled containers. I know too many women who are constantly buying new clothes every time their size goes up and down again, because they regularly purge their closets of all the things that don't fit them at the moment. When I got pregnant, I gave away all my most snug-waisted clothes, assuming I'd never be this thin again. Then after a year or two of running after a feisty child, I got even thinner than I had been at the start of my pregnancy. I could have used some of those clothes I'd given away. Oops.

The point is, if it's possible for you to be highly organized about clothes that are temporarily out of style or not your current size (but which quite possibly will fit again sometime), it's better on your wallet and the world to keep them instead of constantly buying new stuff.

And what if you are just bored with all your old clothes?

Here's the fun part! It's time for seasonal closet shopping!

If you're anything like me, you probably have a closet packed with things that have stories behind them, pieces with more history and soul than recent manufacture. I think that can be a good thing, but of course, the same old stories do get boring when they're told the exact same way every time.

It's time to mix and restyle those old favorites with your personal stylist, just like on a makeover TV show! Except, haha, when you are financially challenged, your personal stylist is imaginary. It's a good thing, starving friend, that you are an artist, because you can create your own imaginary character. We writers do it every day.

I like to start with a fresh, brand-new, this-year, this-season, of-the-moment style guide from the media. This can be an issue of your favorite magazine, a set of photos from your favorite designer's latest runway show, or the latest posts from your favorite street-style fashion blogger. Make a list of the elements that make this particular fashion feast exciting to you. This season, mine included items like:

  • pointed, low-heel shoes
  • fabrics in lush textures and prints
  • skirts: hippie, midi with accordion pleats, pencil
  • dresses: fit-and-flare, romantic styles, bold prints
  • wide-leg knit pants
  • silky blouses
  • cable-knit sweaters
  • leather (or faux) bag
  • funky pearl jewelry, crafty pendant necklaces, and giant earrings
  • all the scarves and shawls
  • camel trench

The same trick works for makeup, nail polish, and home decorating elements. For cosmetics and jewelry, I pull out the "current season" items and put them in an easy-to-reach organizer or container on top of my bathroom counter or bedroom dresser, like the copper bowl and jewelry box here.

I only focus on the items I know I have at home, skimming right past the trends that tempt me to buy new things that would look stupid outside of Burning Man anyway (bell-bottom jeans, turban-style headbands... Just say no!). Then I go through each part of my closet, dresser, jewelry box, and cosmetics cupboard, pulling out all of-the-moment items and moving them front-and-center, to the top of the drawer, or into the easy-access organizer or dish. Kaboom! Suddenly my wardrobe seems much cooler than it was before, and the temptation to buy new stuff is diminished.

It also feels calming to have a limited, focused palette of items visible on the surface of everything. My closet, dresser, and surfaces look curated, and it's a breeze to get ready each morning.

When I "bury" the things that aren't part of this season's aesthetic, I forget about them just enough that I can feel a little excited about them when I "rediscover" them later.

When arranging my "new" look for the season, I like to pay special attention to on-trend combinations, which add even more of that new feeling to old clothes. Is black + navy a thing this season? Flowy hippie skirts with biker boots? Are we print-mixing? Going monochromatic? Bringing that sequined party top to work under a blazer? Placing hot combinations alongside each other makes dressing that much easier.

If you have a creative mind, you can even go beyond your bedroom and trade home decor and clothing elements. Knit throws, silk wrap skirts, sarongs, saris, big scarves, shawls, tablecloths, duvet covers... depending on how adventurous you want to get, many of these items can trade places and masquerade as each other, perhaps with the help of safety pins or clever folds.

If you are more crafty than I am, you can even make alterations to clothing or other objects that you find in your home to update your seasonal wardrobe and decor. For inspiration, pull that dusty old copy of Little Women off your shelf and read about how the March sisters creatively altered and repainted their old gowns and accessories after they became too poor to buy new ones.

The seasonal closet shop is, of course, a great opportunity to yank out some of those items that you know shouldn't be in there. You'll come across things that you suddenly realize are too worn out, not your color, or just not your type for whatever reason. Remember that sweater your Aunt Griselda bought you for Christmas in 2009 and you didn't have the heart to return it? It's warmed your closet shelf long enough, and someone else may be thrilled to find it waiting to be adopted, like-new, at the thrift store.

I usually sort my castoffs into two bags, one for donation and another for the next clothing swap party with friends. Because who knows? Maybe a pair of those flared jeans will end up on my shelf after all...

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Alert: Falling Nuts!

This fall, watch for the following nuts to drop...

  • Fashion Tips for the Starving Artist (how to be a little more like the Marchesa Luisa di Casati every day)
  • "Raised with the Ragnarok" (how we talk to our child about death and religion)
  • hopefully, a review of Rammstein's soon-to-be-released documentary (because Mommy still likes birthday presents)

It's getting dark in here, but don't worry. Each post will include sugar, spice, and the warm glow of a church-grade, beeswax candle.