The Magical Place My Husband Took Me

4 Jun
The mighty Hudson. June 1, 2017. Alexandra Hanson-Harding.

The mighty Hudson. June 1, 2017. Alexandra Hanson-Harding.

Last week, my husband said, “This Thursday is the surprise I told you about. I’ll bet you aren’t even curious, are you?”
“Not really.”
“You’re so easy to trick,” he said. “Everything is a surprise for you.”
(I probably shouldn’t say that on a blog, should I? It’s not that I’m never suspicious. It’s just that when it comes to my husband, my experience has taught me that most surprises tend to be nice ones. So I am not anxious with him. I feel quite at peace with my honest, tenderhearted life partner.
So on Thursday, we got in the car, drove north into New York state, and listened to a book on Audible quite pleasantly while I doodled in my journal, and I didn’t pay too much attention until we got to a very pretty town along the Hudson River. And then, he hefted our backpack and my capacious Bag of Amusements into a walk into the woods. It ended in climbing a short bridge to an old-fashioned lighthouse on the Hudson River, which has been turned into a bed and breakfast, for only two couples per night. He had gotten the reservations in January! It was a complete surprise. It was a magical–quaint and pretty on the inside, and surrounded by water and light on the outside. We watched the sky and the clouds and the water for hour that day and the next morning. Every once in a while fish (herring?) would just flop and create circles. Fleets of clouds moved busily across the sky. Vs of geese honked northward and so did the occasional barge or sailboat. Silvery trains tooted by on the east bank. Shadows shimmered across the blue and green mountains. The water shimmered with light and dark. What a glorious ancient river, it filled me with yearning, and what a companion, the one person with whom I can sit in quietness for hours in peace and still feel understood and understanding. It was so happy, and to be there was like storing nutrition to feed the leanness of some future difficult day.

Monk, Imperious King of the Bed

24 Apr

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Monk. April 2017. Alexandra Hanson-Harding.

Monk. April 2017. Alexandra Hanson-Harding.

Three Beautiful Musical Collections on YouTube That Will Make Your Toes Curl With Pleasure

21 Apr

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The World is so ugly sometimes, but music is so, so full of enchantment, no? Here are a few gems I have found to soothe away a little of the suffering:

♫ The most BEAUTIFUL choral music EVER written
Collegium Regale Music of Inner Harmony sung by the world’s best choirs.
This collection contains two and a half hours of gorgeous pieces such as Samuel Barber’s transcendent Agnus Dei . . . to lovely pieces by composers such as Bach, Pergolesi, Elgar, Tallis, and more. Then there’s a partapart two, and a part three!! So there are more than 10 hours of this lusciousness, perfect for study, thinking, and dreaming.

Putumayo presents: Jewish Odyssey

I happen to own this as a CD, as I do many other Putumayo CDs. I am a Putumayo groupie. Once upon a time, Putumayo used to have a clothes store in New York, and I still have some of their clothes, now practically rags. Sigh. I love world music, and even took a hideously boring ethnomusicology class in college. (All I learned was, and I don’t even know if this is correct, is “Jaap Kunst was the Father of Ethnomusicology Type IA.”) and Putumayo has gone around the world making fascinating collections. Are they typical of what the world has to offer? I can’t say for sure. But I know that Putumayo has brought many new sounds to my delighted ear. In this particular collection, there are a wide variety of singers showing that Israel has a lot going on musically, and draws on many different traditions. My favorites included the poignant yet danceable Fel Shara by the KlesRoym, The many different musical collections. The gentle Ija Mia Mi Kerida – Janet Esim, and the Shalom Aleichem by Fortuna that made me want to cry.

Putumayo presents: Jewish Odyssey

Best of Sufi Songs.

Four Words: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I repeat. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. If you have not heard the indescribable voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan–no, if you have not been stabbed in the heart and nailed to the wall by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and then somehow walked away gasping, then you have not lived, my friend. How do I describe this voice. His singing is frank and direct, with a slight roughness at the edges, and then, he can go on extended passionate arpeggios that are both melody and percussion at the same time. There is vigor and passion in his singing that is so exciting. He is just one of many great Sufi singers. For those who don’t know what the Sufi faith is, it is a branch of the Sufi religion which–and please, people who are actual practitioners of Sufism, please feel to correct me, I am only writing to my best understanding here–is part of Islam, and which has an exceptionally open, joyful, and ecstatic view of human relationship to God. The most famous practitioner of Sufism the incredible poet Rumi (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumi) about whom I would like to write one day. Anyway, my husband and I recently had the pleasure of going to see one of the modern great Sufi singers recently, Sanam Marvi in New York, and she was a rock star, truly. But about this collection..It features music by Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan and many other Sufi Singers, AND there are parts two and three. So put it on and you will have hours of mystical pleasure.

Enjoy!

Miss Green

20 Apr
Miss Green. Alexandra Hanson-Harding. April 2017.

Miss Green. Alexandra Hanson-Harding. April 2017.

I am in my green period. That is to say, I am curious to see if I can make people look like people using colors other than people colors. I am using the Ipad program called Sketches and my finger to do these experiments. I have not yet used more than the most basic tools, to my shame, nor have I tried using a stylus, as I am just a wee baby Ipad artist. Nor am I using the best program yet, which I understand to be Procreate. But, Excelsior, onward and upward! Ipad art is an amazing medium because it gives one the chance to experiment rapidly without expense or a feeling of loss.

Gefilte Fish, the Good Kind

20 Apr
Gefilte Fish, the good kind. By Alexandra Hanso-Harding, April 2017. P

Gefilte Fish, the good kind. By Alexandra Hanson-Harding, April 2017.

Tonight the husband served me some delicious gefilte fish. The good kind. You may ask, what is the good kind? Is it Rokeach? Is it Manischewitz? Yehudah? Mrs. Adler’s? Is it what? The answer, my friend, is something I found out by accident one year when I went to a kosher supermarket in Passaic, New Jersey, and couldn’t find any jars of gefilte fish at all. I don’t know why. I wasn’t looking in the right place, or they were sold out, or maybe the fact that it was just before Pesach and it was as crowded AF with harried mothers who had about 8 kids each in tow (I am in awe). But I did find something intriguing I’d never seen before: Frozen gefilte fish in a log, wrapped in white paper. It looked . . . less gelatinous than your everyday gefilte fish, which to my mind was a good thing. While I enjoy the taste of the gefilte, the nebulous edges of the jarred beast unsettle me.

I brought home a mighty log of the gefilte fish and my husband said, “What exactly do you do with that thing? It’s frozen.”
I hadn’t exactly thought of “reading the directions” at that point. “I don’t know, just warm it up, I guess,” I said.
“Hmm,” he said, squinting at the side of the package. “It says here that you have to simmer it in a broth of two quarts of water, carrots, onions, salt, and pepper for an hour and a half.”
“My point exactly,” I said with a glare. “I was already going to do that.”
I thumped around and actually followed the directions–you put the log of gefilte fish in the water still wrapped in its inner paper wrapping, and let it bob around in the pot with the carrots and onions. And it comes out making the whole house smell nice, with a faint sweet warm fishy-in-a-nice way, carrot and oniony smell. The gefilte fish has a sweetness and a firmness that is just right with some lovely horseradish with beets, for instance, to give it a little bite, and it truly just was the good kind, and now that’s the kind we always, always get.

Saint with Book

13 Apr
Saint with book, Seville. A. Hanson-Harding, 2017.

Saint with book, Seville. A. Hanson-Harding, 2017.

Feeling Purple

12 Apr
Feeling puple. April 2017. Alexandra Hanson-Harding.

Feeling purple. April 2017. Alexandra Hanson-Harding.

Yesterday, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

9 Apr
Terra Cotta Warrior, Metropolitan Museum of Art. April 2017. Alexandra Hanson-Harding.

Terra Cotta Warrior, Metropolitan Museum of Art. April 2017. Alexandra Hanson-Harding.

Oh, how I love a brisk April day in New York. I am taking a break from posting pictures of beautiful Spain to share an image or two of our sojourn to the Met, where Mr. Me and I spent the day listening to papers about–well, at the time that my ambitious husband signed us up for it, I was in some kind of epic Twitter battle, so I thought he said, “Hey, want to go to a free (muffle muffle) about (muffle) art from (muffle) China?” so I said “Sure!” as I fired off a few more volleys correcting the world’s wrongs. What could be bad? Having gotten that straightened out, I awoke yesterday to find out that I had signed up for a full day of extremely esoteric academic papers for something called Met Speaks: The Age of Empires: Comparisons and Interactions between East and West in Antiquity.

Thank goodness I had caffeinated properly that morning. And also, that we had run into a wonderful old friend of mine, Carol Drisko, one of those consummate New York women who are always running from one cultural event to another because they cannot stuff their curious brains full enough. So if she, 80 plus and sharp as a diamond, could attend to this matter bright and early in the morning, I figured I could, too.

And so, we learned about how the official court religious practices of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, and China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, were similar and different, and how their differences revealed special aspects of their cultures (i.e; that Rome was more open and public and China’s rulers gained more authority by being distant and mysterious). We heard a lecture questioning whether the terra cotta warriors buried in Qin Shi Huang’s vast tomb counted as portraits of individual soldiers, considering that they had individualized features (spoiler alert: nope), and asking whether ancient images in general counted as portraits (spoiler alert: it depends). We heard another lecture comparing the Romans and Carthaginians at the Battle of Cannae to the terra cotta warriors. Somehow, it had previously escaped my attention that Chinese warriors of that period used crossbows, which seems pretty kickass, quite honestly. That’s why the terra cotta warriors don’t have that much head armor or that much armor generally–they didn’t do as much hand-to-hand fighting as the Romans. On the other hand, the Chinese were big on chariot fighting, which believe it or not, was a rather antiquated way of fighting that in the west had been used by the Egyptians and Assyrians, but had been abandoned by the time of the Romans in favor of cavalry. Go figure. So I’m not exactly sure who would win in Death Match: Roman Vs. Chinese Warriors. Anyway, Dr. Lillian Lan-ying Tseng, a battle nerd after my own heart (the husband was rolling his eyes watching me get into this), postulated that the terra cotta warriors were all arranged in a very specific formation to fight a heavily defensive battle against a threat from the east (the most likely source of danger at that time) to protect the emperor in the afterlife. Very interesting.

At lunchtime, Miss Carol, the husband and I stumped upstairs to see the Han dynasty exhibit. It was quite captivating. So captivating that we completely lost Carol. Now we are sadly emailing each other and making plans to see each other IRL in some less fraught venue. The Mr. and I tanked up on more caffeine and got tiny plates of salad that cost about $75 apiece (why didn’t we smuggle in a nice salami in the linings of our coats?) then headed back for round two.

Then we heard a nice long talk about whether or not there was any Hellenic influence on the terra cotta warriors. Professor Fiona Kidd presented some visual evidencing suggesting possible links. That was kind of a mind-bending thought to me. Of course there has been a trade route along the silk road from time immemorial. But I have mostly thought of the artistic influences that might have occurred, if any, that early, to have been limited to the decorative arts. The thought that ideas about fine arts such as sculpture could be passed along and transformed in unique cultural ways is electric and inspiring and human. It really is interesting to think of how early some of these exchanges might have taken place–and how the east might have shaped the west as well.

Next we heard a lecture called Some Thoughts on Evidence for Monumental Sculpture in Eastern Iran and Central Asia under the Seleucids, the Early Greco-Bactrians, and the Early Arsacids. It was very interestin–okay, who am I fooling. It was now getting to be about three o’clock in the afternoon. It should have been interesting. Some of it was interesting. It wasn’t poor Dr. Soren with an umlaut or something Stark’s fault that my caffeine wore off and that I didn’t know my Arsacids from my elbow. The husband was whispering something to me like, “Shouldn’t they have sculpture in the round because the Seleucids were post-Macedonian?” and I was like, “My we’re specific today, aren’t we?” I was about ready to fall off my chair.

“Tea time?” he said before I crashed, and out we fled into the Egyptian wing.

We had a lovely hour putting up our feet in the cafeteria having $15.75 cups of tea and coffee and eavesdropping on other people having dramatic New Yorky conversations before I had recovered myself sufficiently to beg the dear man to let me have a little time to draw some sculptures in the Greek and Roman wing, and then we left to meeting our friends for dinner and a night at the theater.

It’s funny, at the time I felt as if I had absorbed nothing, and yet, a day later, I feel as if ideas are still spinning out of my head from what I heard yesterday, and that they’ll keep spinning out for weeks. I could hardly get to sleep last night, my brain felt so overheated. I guess sitting there and tolerating the feeling of being ignorant and uncomfortable and undercaffeinated as long as I could was worth it for the haul of interestingness that I was able to gather for slower hours that lie ahead, when I can unpack these ideas and look at them more slowly.

And thank god for tea.

Arcos de la Frontera

6 Apr

Arcos de la Frontera from our window. March 2017. Alexandra Hanson-Harding.

Arcos de la Frontera from our window. March 2017. Alexandra Hanson-Harding.[/captionAr

Arcos de la Frontera is one of Spain’s “White Towns.” All the buildings are painted white. It is on top of a mountain. We stayed at a very old hotel that we had to park several blocks away from–even driving there was utterly terrifying because the streets were so small and windy. A waiter from a nearby restaurant guided us through the streets, then asked us for a tip, which we very gladly gave him. I felt horrible for people in this area–Andalucia has 38 percent unemployment, and although it is rich in beauty, opportunities are obviously short in supply. He was a young man and he seemed enterprising and he told us his restaurant was really good. We went to it later and it was. The hotel was very, very beautiful. It was called La Casa Grande. We had a room that had a terrace right over the cliff. It was incredibly reasonably priced–only 75 euros. That was crazy. It was obviously off-season, but still! Tiled floors, ancient arched doorways and ceilings, heavy, solid doors–such plain dignity and beauty. The shadows and sun had such presence. So much beauty. The town, what I could see of it, was really lovely. My problem was that it was very steep, and with my back problems, going down steep hills is very painful and then makes my leg go numb. It’s not the best. So I couldn’t do much there. There was an ancient church that was closed. Someone was displaying birds for a fee[caption id="attachment_4279" width="3264"]Fields of Arcos. Alexandra Hanson-Harding 2017. Fields of Arcos. Alexandra Hanson-Harding 2017.

. I honestly don’t know what old people with back problems did back in the day in Arcos de la Frontera, because surely they existed. But I highly recommend this enchanting little town for a visit, to watch raptors fly outside your windows before the beautiful fields below, with the distant Atlas Mountains of Africa in the background–pure magic. IMG_0323

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The Most Important Thing I Learned This Year

31 Mar
When Annie and I had dinner at this restaurant, she spent half the time worrying that it didn't have enough business, because she always worried about other people.

When Annie and I had dinner at this restaurant, she spent half the time worrying that it didn’t have enough business, because she always worried about other people.

Today is my birthday, and in spite of the fact that I seem to be unable to string five words together lately, I have promised to write something of portent today on this most holy of occasions, or, as we call it in my family, “The Day Dad’s Butt was Sore.” It’s a long story.

 

There are many things that happen in a year. Even though it is arbitrary, events have a way of arranging themselves into a story, because humans have storytelling minds. It seems logical that I started at some middling point last year, had ups and downs and ended on a rising high. Early last year, my darling friend Evelyn got married in Phoenix and I was there with my husband, and that was a joy. There were many pleasures last year. But I also struggled with several painful flare-ups of the autoimmune disease that attacks my spine, and the crushing pain that continued for long periods demoralized me and wore me down. They made it hard for me to reach out and talk to friends, and I became isolated. There were troubles for people I loved that saddened me. And oh yeah, the 2016 election. Do I need to explain? And then I was rescued by a new medicine and began to feel life and hope pour into me again. My loved ones got happier. I ended the year with an amazing trip to Spain with my beautiful husband, and we only just got back Wednesday night. So the year ended gloriously.

 

But what I really wanted to write is the single most important thing I learned this year. I learned it the hard way. Two friends of mine, vibrant, powerful women younger than I am, died on the same cold day this winter. Annie lives in my town and our kids went to the same delightful woman’s house for after school daycare. Annie was warm and fierce and hilarious. She knew everybody and she would bring everyone together. Even though I could be rather shy and standoffish, she decided she was going to adopt me and make sure that I had a good social life whether I wanted to or not. She would call me up and say, “Alex, come over and watch me cook,” and I would. Because I really did enjoy her companionship, and I enjoyed everyone else she adopted and brought together, including, and especially, her two sisters, with whom she had an intensely close and dear relationship, even though she called one of her sisters “Knucklehead.” I had known her for more than a year as a formidable mom in a minivan when she accidentally let it slip that she was a Harvard educated lawyer. But actually, she brought that mom in a minivan quality to her lawyering—the care, the worrying, the schlepping, the getting every detail right. She was an amazing raconteur who would tell stories which would frequently shock me, and she and her sisters worked hard to build an extended family that encircled all of their children, the old people, the vulnerable people, and outsiders like me in its warmth. There was always food, conversation, and light where they were. And then she got cancer.

I took this picture of Jackie after our Fuck You Cancer lunch.

I took this picture of Jackie after our Fuck You Cancer lunch.

 

I also lost Jackie. She was another fierce person. She was a talented editor and writer who I’ve known for years since we worked at the same company. She also struggled with cancer for more than a decade. She had an incredible sense of pride and dignity in the face of her illness. She took care of her parents when they died of cancer, and she even had cancer when she was helping her mother. With the help of her friend Sue, she weathered endless rounds of chemo and the devastation of learning bad news again and again and again as her health slowly slid downward. But she retained her wit, her frank anger at the disease, and her caring connectedness to other people. A few years ago, when I was going through I period of serious depression, I went to her office—she had been on full disability but she fought to get off it and get a job again because that’s how she rolled—because we were going to have a pardon-the-expression “Fuck you cancer” lunch at Kelley and Ping, one of our favorite local spots in NYC. Although I was depressed and she had cancer, we just laughed and laughed all through that lunch. I asked her, because at this point, nothing was off the table, “So, when you get depressed, how do you get the energy to, you know, stay alive?” She thought for a moment. “I say to myself, I didn’t go through nine fucking rounds of chemo so I could kill myself.” And that sentence was so freaking badass that I said, “I am totally stealing that,” and we laughed again. But I wasn’t kidding. Through the gray days of that grim depression, I would actually mouth to myself “As Jackie said, ‘I didn’t go through nine fucking rounds of chemo so I could kill myself,’” until the day the fog finally lifted. Jackie was funny and wry and she didn’t forget other people. I was looking through my journals looking for stories about her after she died and suddenly I remembered—how could I forget? that she was the one who had gotten me not one but two different jobs after I left the company where we worked together. I know that she shared opportunities generously with other friends as well. And through her I made other friends. At her funeral, I realized how many faces I knew were connected to me through Jackie. We were a community of people all woven through with her fate, with her kindness and her thoughtfulness. I hadn’t seen her for the last year of her life. I was very lost in my illness and immobility, and didn’t know that time had run out. I was so sorry I had not been more present in the last year.

 

But I also felt a sense of joy when thought of both Annie and Jackie. At both funerals I saw how their lives had made a difference not just to me but to so many other people. They were permanently imprinted and changed by things Jackie and Annie had done and said. By their energy and love. I thought of the friendships I have had with these women, and with the other amazing and precious people I have had the privilege to know. I had had the chance to reconnect with Annie, and I was so happy to have seen her again. And I was relieved to see that I had written a long letter to Jackie a few months before her death, but I think she must have been too ill or busy to answer. So I felt happy I had at least reached out. Because that’s what both Annie and Jackie would do, again and again. They would reach out, and reconnect with me. So I wanted to be the kind of person they were. And I wanted to do it joyfully, not with shame.

 

So, this is what I learned. The most important thing I learned all year. If I have a friend who I’m thinking about, and I want to reconnect but feel embarrassed because I’ve put it off too long so I’m hesitating, just DO IT. Adults have complicated lives and they can’t always be there for you or you for them at the exact moment you want them. But that does not mean that there is not love and meaning in your relationship. Sickness made me an unreliable friend in some ways these past few years. But there are ways I can—that adults can—still be reliable, and that is by making the attempt to reconnect again and again, when you can. Thinking of a friend, sending them a small note, having a phone call—every single connection is a brick in the house you are building of your friendship together. Every contact made with affection and interest is precious.

 

As I approach this coming year, I feel as if I have Annie on one side and Jackie on the other, reminding me how the love of other people shapes and enriches life, and that time spent openheartedly appreciating those people, whenever possible, is one of the most valuable things I can do with the life that I possess. I wish that these two women were here. There is a hole in the world with them gone. But at least I can honor the piece of them that is still here living in me. So, thank you friends! Thank you everyone I love.

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