It seems impossible (and in hindsight, sheer folly) but three weeks ago someone in the chat during our streaming church service mentioned how they would miss our annual women’s retreat. By the time we were moving from our YouTube channel to the Zoom coffee hour, we were requesting a breakout room to talk about the possibility of an online retreat. Three weeks ago. And this weekend, it happened, and it was good.
As I recall, it used to be like this: a rush hour drive to a peaceful, nicely-appointed retreat center, gathering with thirty or so other women to share stories, take long walks, and enjoy a break from the everyday. This would be different; no driving was involved. But other than that, couldn’t we still share, walk, and create a sense of separation from...whatever we needed to get away from? Instead of the snack collection in the break room, we were limited to the contents of our own cupboards. Most of us had to figure out how to maintain a retreat state of mind while occupying a household going about their own business. For me, this meant setting myself up in the bedroom of our four-room apartment, with access to the master bath, while my husband had free reign of the three other rooms and the second bath.
I filled a pitcher with ice water, brought in my journal and pens, and made sure I had a small supply of snacks: dark chocolate, a pear, and some granola bars. It felt right.
We had a website to organize the schedule and invite interaction. We had a yoga, a craft activity, and even a Zoom dance party, and lots more. We had Zoom gatherings for meals, with small group breakout “tables” to replicate the cafeteria experience at the retreat center, a setting that many women remembered fondly as locations for creating and deepening relationships. We had a profoundly spiritual opening and closing. If you build it, they will come; we had over sixty registrations. Not everyone attended every session, but that was true of our earlier retreats. (I was notorious for “playing hookey” from retreats and heading to nearby brewpubs.)
So this afternoon, I am basking in the glow of a weekend well-spent. I am grateful for my community, for technology that can bring us together in hard times. I am grateful for the fearless women who stepped up to do this crazy thing, and for the trusting women who signed up t9 come alone for the ride, no matter how bumpy it might be.
Was it a real retreat? My friend Janne caught this screen shot of me during the closing meditation. It certainly felt like it.
Covid-19: Prison Report
I wasn't sure I should write this post. I have been corresponding with an inmate at a federal correctional institution for going on five years now, as part of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship's Worthy Now ministry. We exchange letters every few months, usually just sharing notes on the weather, books we are reading and other mundane topics. But this week I got a letter from him that I feel compelled to share. I am not going to reveal his location, name, or any information that might help identify him.
The unit he is in is low security, for nonviolent offenders, many of whom are also over fifty.
The virus hit [low security] first, brought in by the guards. At first, they did nothing - several people (including me) went to medical with shortness of breath, hard to breathe, no taste, no smell, aches...we were all sent back to our units - if you didn't have a temp you were fine! Consequently the virus ended up running rampant thru our building. 10+ went to the hospital on ventilators, 3 died.Then, in their wisdom, they ... put people with temps [together in one unit]...distributed [people already in that unit] to other units.
The people in those other units were then effectively locked in; no outside time at all. They were also informed about the need for "social distancing" and handwashing, and given a 4 ounce bottle of soap every week. Imagine an open space with a TV and tables for four, surrounded by open "rooms" (cubicles with no doors) furnished with bunk beds for 2 or 3 people.
After [several] weeks they issued two disposable masks; after a month and a half they gave us...cloth masks. Most of the guards have them - some don't wear them at all. [Nearly 30] guards are infected here. Not sure how many inmates since the Board of Prison numbers don't match the union numbers and none match the local hospital numbers.
They haven't tested that many. I had it and I know most in my unit had it. They did pull out ... guys with temps and moved them into the quarantine unit but unless you had a temp they did nothing. I was one of those. It got so bad my fingers were blue and I had a very difficult time breathing.
He is better now, and has learned that his release date has been moved up by six months, so he will be moved to a halfway house in about 18 months.
Every day, I feel more ashamed and angry. I just channeled some of that emotion into a donation to the Center for Prison Reform.
A long time ago (sometime in the 1980s), I gave a paper at a regional Costume Society of America meeting. I can't remember the topic, and it isn't even listed on my CV. Only one thing stands out in my memory: I was introduced by Richard Martin, at that time one of the brightest stars in the fashion studies firmament. Only one year my senior, Richard was an established curator and scholar, producing several blockbuster exhibits a year at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He had graduated from college the same year I graduated from high school, and earned two master's degrees while I was still waiting tables. In short, he was brilliant. He was also gracious and generous; there are many "stars" in academic fields who are willing to lower themselves to occasional brief appearances at conferences, where they hang out with the other stars and ignore everyone else. Richard was not that person.
So it was that Richard Martin (THE Richard Martin) was at a regional meeting presiding over a session of papers by junior scholars and graduate students. I was probably the most senior presenter, but still an assistant professor; my very first article about boys' clothing and gender had just been published in Dress. And he introduced me not just with a list of my degrees and positions, but a description of my work. WHICH HE CLEARLY HAD READ. And he called me an iconoclast. On my secret, imaginary business cards ever since, is the line "Richard Martin called me an iconoclast".
Yesterday I got this message via Linkedin from Rob Smith, founder of The Phluid Project, a gender-free store in New York.
So: iconoclast icon? Iconic iconoclast? I think what it means is "don't stop". So I won't!
Enough - my life as a minimalist
It is 1970, and I am working at my first waitressing job at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I am wearing the classic black maid’s dress, complete with white apron and frilly white cap. It is the first time I have ever worn a uniform for a job, and I like it. During the day I wear my faded bell-bottoms and one of a number of colorful shirts, and on the job I have my uniform. Bliss. So blissful am I that I find myself making lists on my 3 by 5 inch notepad. They look like packing lists for a trip, but they are really a plan for my ideal wardrobe – one that is ENOUGH but never TOO MUCH. I don’t have the lists today, but remember the basics:
The only ominous thing about this fixation with the minimalist wardrobe is that I was, at the time, a fashion design major.
Fast-forward to my life as a retired professor in 2019. Most days, I wear comfortable casual clothes, usually jeans and one of several turtlenecks or tees I own in different colors. I have six linear feet of hanging clothing (half for cold weather, half for warmer months), 12 pairs of shoes, one winter coat and one bathrobe. Am I in possession of enough, or still in its pursuit?
Stay tuned for more.
Imagine a world...
Can you imagine how the world would be different today if the people who have been climbed over, stepped on, and silenced had been able to tell their own stories, play their own music, create their own art? Can you imagine how the world could be different without fame and success being the reward for oppression, cultural theft, and abuse? I wonder about this all the time, more and more thanks to #BlackLivesMatter #MeToo and #TimesUp.
Was "Annie Hall" brilliant because of Woody Allen's appalling sexual behavior, or in spite of if? Does the beauty of the blues justify 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow?
It's one thing to know that terrible circumstances can result in amazing works of expression. It's another to believe they are necessary, and accept crimes against humanity as the price to be paid for those works. And it is still another to admire or even protect people who use other people as objects or chattel because we like their music/art/athletic ability/writing/politics/comedy.
That's where I am this morning.
In the last six months, three of my closest friends have moved away. Carol and Sara moved in July; one went north (State College, PA) and one went south, to Raleigh, NC, each about five hours away. The final blow was Katie's slo-mo move to northern California, which commenced last Friday. She's visiting family and friends along the way (she's retired, too) and as soon as I heard her plans, I said "ROAD TRIP"!! The general idea was that I 'd ride along until I needed to head home, and Katie would plan an itinerary that would intersect with an Amtrak route.
Everything depended on weather, of course -- winter road trips are like that -- so it turned out that I could only manage the first leg, from Maryland to Raleigh, North Carolina. TO SEE SARA!!! Katie and I had a great day: light traffic, gorgeous weather, and lunch at a brewpub in Richmond where we practiced our posing skills.
Arriving at Sara's ****awesome**** coworking space in late afternoon, we enjoyed a tour of the "neighborhood" (a huge warehouse), which included a brewpub and a neon glass studio.
The glass studio is inhabited by some of the most interesting human beings I have met in a long time, but I am giving a special shoutout to DJ, a recent MFA in jewelry design, who is apprenticing with Nate Sheaffer, the owner of Glas, learning glass blowing and incorporating their new skills into all sorts of art. Take a look at the jewelry! And the glass! Stop by when you are in Raleigh, visit the Loading Dock (pat the dogs, take the tour), enjoy the beer, and BE SURE to look at all the amazing neon/glass work.
Katie left the next morning after breakfast (snif), leaving Sara and me to gad about Raleigh and environs sampling beer, eating great food, and going to dog adoption events. Her parents were looking for a pooch to fill out their cat-heavy menagerie. Success was achieved with the arrival of Winston, a lively Pekinese mix. Meeting families of friends/students/colleagues is always interesting; it adds another dimension to the person you think you already know. In Sara's case, it was easy to see where she got her love of animals, sense of humor, and sweet hospitable nature.
I also got some good work done with my brain, but it is still cooking and not ready to serve yet.
I had an interesting conversation with a visiting journalist from India not long ago, in which she asked about how I had organized my research career. The short answer is that it was not exactly organized; in retrospect, it seems more orderly than it was. Here is how I see it now:
What was particularly helpful for me personally was realizing about forty years ago, as I was starting my PhD, that my goal was not to understand fashion, but to use fashion as a lens to understand gender. That freed me to use other lenses as well, while building my specialized expertise in fashion. So while my research and writing focused on clothing, I read far beyond clothing, and read less of the fashion literature that did not incorporate gender. What I have learned about toys, food, film, and other cultural products that also reveal gender has helped me understand fashion/gender better. Within the last twenty years or so, I have expanded this frame of reference to reflect my realization that gender is itself a lens through which I study culture. I wonder how my work would have been different if I started out forty years ago focusing on culture, then narrowing to gender and then to fashion. But evidently that is not how my brain works.
Why do I watch Indian films?
It is through the similarities and contrasts between the US and India that I am learning the most. We are both democracies, both former colonies, both religiously and culturally diverse. We have been a nation longer, but India is the cradle of much of what we think of as "western" civilization. Pajamas? Dungarees? Shampoo? Bungalow? Just a few of the common words of Indian origin that made their way into everyday English. in fact, we share much more a few recently adopted terms; Engllsh is part of the Indo-European linguistic family, and owes as much to Sanskrit as to Greek and Latin.
The most interesting films for me are the ones that open my eyes to my own culture and my own assumptions and beliefs -- most recently the romantic film Jab Harry Met Sejal, which is appealing to this American not only because the music is glorious and the acting superb, but also because while love may be universal, the lovers' expectations and boundaries are bound up in their identities as Indians. The more I understand Harry and Sejal, the deeper my understanding of their world and my own.
Thanks, India, for over 100 years of films to explore!
It started with a pilgrimage
Although my last official day at work was June 30, my emotional last day was over a month earlier, when I attended my last graduation ceremony as a participant. Since then, I have been on a sort of pilgrimage, traveling to various places and gathering bits of my past, present and future to craft into my next life chapter. The word "retirement" holds no meaning at all; For the foreseeable future, I plan to read, think, and write even more than I used to. It's likely I will also be talking, listening, and discussing more than I was able to -- at least, I hope that's the case. Some of it will happen on social media, some of it over coffee, beer, or a meal, some of here. This is a catch-up post that also serves as a preview of some future entries. An appetizer, I hope.
Since late May, I have traveled to Portland, Maine, New York City, Baltimore (close, but it counts), Star Island (twice), and San Francisco by way of a shirt stop in Chicago. I have read more books in eight weeks than I had time to read in my last entire school year. I have sewn -- a little, not enough. I have watched dozens of movies (most of them Indian). I've played with my 4-year-old grandson and learned of the death of my youngest aunt, who was barely in high school when I was born. I have said goodbye to close friends moving away and hello to new people in my life. I have done much, much more than that, and promise to fill in some of the blanks later. Mostly, I have been filling myself up, refueling for the next leg of the journey.
Friends have warned me about the dangers of overcommitment in retirement. Frankly, I'm not worried; my secret superpower has been the ability to say "no" for some time now. (If anything, it's my reluctance to say "yes" that can get me in trouble.) For now, my plan is to mostly think and make things while I think -- my favorite form of meditation. I will share sometimes, but not everything. Every draft does not need a reader, and not every sketch wants a critic (even a friendly one).
This blog will continue to live up to its name -- everything else -- I have posts cooking away in my brain on my cross country train trip, the latest Shah Rukh Khan film, reading and "real books", beer culture, and other random topics. Watch this space. My more focused work on gender and clothing will be posted on Gender Mystique. (Yes, I am still working on that third book!) Local friends, feel free to pull me away for a chat; but no meetings, please!
Moving away; Going home
Having freed myself from the tyranny of StoryADay’s prompts, I am moving on to my real reason for taking up this challenge. I wanted to turn my blog posts from my trip to Nebraska last fall into a personal narrative. I realized that there were many stories running through my nearly-daily entries, from personal reminiscences and to discoveries about my political and spiritual identities. Bear with me; this is a draft of a revision of a series of drafts.
At first, it just seemed like a big adventure. "We're moving east; Daddy has a new job in New York." New York! To a little girl on the high plains of