Thursday, January 31, 2019

Celebrating Groundhog Day (Again)

My first essay for The Philadelphia Inquirer (published February 2, 2011)...


There are many silly made-up holidays in the 28 days of blah that constitute February: Spunky Old Broads’ Day, National Spay Your Pet Day, etc. And of course, February has two biggies: Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day. The former, supposedly a celebration of love, is really a shameless shakedown for guilt-laden cash. The latter exists just to create a long weekend: nothing but time and leisure to enjoy your closed bank, shuttered state store and undelivered mail.

But Groundhog Day! It’s just about perfect. It is an oasis of optimism against the odds, such a great message for a bleak month. Everyone is captivated as Furry Phil (looking astoundingly good for his advanced age) emerges from his burrow and predicts the end of winter. And that’s pretty much that. No need to spend a dime on decorations. No scrambling to trim a tree or roast a turkey or dye an egg. Only the merchants of Punxsutawney itself see a profit from what is otherwise a purely commercial-free day. Phil delivers a clear message: Spring will be here in less than six weeks. Or it won’t. And occasionally, he’s even right—surely a track record that is the envy of meteorologists everywhere.

Unlike some of his fanciful counterparts, this lovable rodent doesn’t demand teeth under pillows or milk and cookies by the fireplace. His prognostication is simple and heartfelt, and offered free of charge: someday soon (or soon-ish), the flowers will bloom again, the birds will sing. We’ve all nearly made it through another season of cold and dark, and Phil cheers us on: “You can do it! The finish line’s just up ahead! Maybe!”

And how would we observe this new day off? We could start, like Phil, by going back to sleep for a few hours. We are, all of us, very tired. On Groundhog Day, snoozing would be mandated. Later, we could make shadow puppets with the family, and maybe gather for a simple meal of hickory nuts, roots, leaves and grubs. But the primary activities would be Encouraging and Hoping—two lovely things to do that require no equipment or expenditure. Encouraging might include calling a friend who has the blues. Smiling at the harried checkout cashier. Pointing out to your husband the spots he missed while shoveling the driveway. And hoping? On Groundhog Day, we can declare a moratorium on gloom and doom, turn off the sad, scary TV news and step away from the Internet. We can dream of that halcyon time ahead when the snow boots are stored and the heating bills go down.

Like Punxsutawney Phil, we are merely speculators, not really knowing the hows and whens and wheres of life. But on this new national holiday, we can learn from our wise animal friend, and just keep showing up. Just keep giving life our best shot, looking on the bright side for positive outcomes.

And then we can take another nap.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Serendipitous Synchronicity

With my friend Michael, an amazing link to my sister

Synchronicity: meaningful coincidence
Serendipity: finding something valuable and delightful when you were not looking for it

I’m pretty sure actor Michael Baran was not expecting to find my book Unhaling in the waiting room of his doctor’s office in New Jersey that day.

I know I was not expecting to hear from him after almost 40 years.

But my book just happened to be there, he just happened to pick it up, and he just happened to recognize the person who wrote it—the sister of a girl he used to date, Maureen Cunningham.

I do a lot of mental gymnastics when things like this happen. My “logical” side says “totally random event.” What are the odds that four young people, living in Atlanta at the same time in the late ‘70’s, would connect in a way that would still resonate so many years later after no contact at all, three of them reunited in remembrance of the fourth, who died much too soon?

My sister Mo was involved, as a teenager, in a Catholic youth movement called “Search.” As the name implied, she was searching for God, for a way forward in a pretty chaotic life. She found a supportive community of young people who became her dear friends. During her time as a Search participant, she met Michael, and they dated for a while. Michael was contemplating a theatre career. Mo arranged for him to meet Steve and me (and in fact, Steve and I spoke at a Search gathering). The advice we gave him, though certainly not earth-shattering, still apparently made an impression (“get lots of experience performing, go to college for theatre, then go to New York”).

And so the decades passed. We lost my beautiful sister in October, 1981. We left Atlanta, settled in Philly, raised our family. I became a church worker and writer, and published the first of my four books in 2010. And then, out of the blue (or not?), Michael reached out to me. After several years of Facebook messaging, there was finally an opportunity to meet again face to face, last Monday in Manhattan. Michael had been cast in an off-off Broadway showcase. I decided to go up and see the play, and Rose, Julie and Gil met me in New York.

After the show, we waited in the lobby. I admit to being nervous, especially at the prospect of introducing him to my daughters, whose only contact with their Aunt Mo was pictures and stories. I needn’t have fretted. Michael was so gracious, and told some wonderful stories of their dates and what she had meant to him. He regards Mo as one of his muses, watching over him from Heaven as he continues to perform.

Skeptics will say that all of this was mere happenstance. I prefer to call it serendipitous synchronicity. Standing in the theatre lobby that night, I could see my Mo, smiling at this random group of people who loved her. Who love her still.

Maureen Cunningham 1957-1981

Monday, January 7, 2019

Impressionist Impressions

Julie playing violin

I made a new friend today, and I’m so excited. Her name is Berthe Morisot, and she’s a GREAT French impressionist painter. Granted, she’s been dead 124 years, but why let a little thing like that get in the way of our relationship? I mean, we won’t be getting together for cafĂ© au lait anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t buds, right?

The Barnes Foundation is presenting an exhibition of Berthe’s work. You need to know this about the Barnes: it is arguably the most idiosyncratic art museum on the planet. Dr. Albert Barnes hung his purchased masterworks according to an eccentric, self-devised pattern: he would find a unifying element (colors, shapes, subject, etc.) and then just put everything together on a wall. An El Greco might hang right next to a Pennsylvania Dutch farm implement, and a Gaughin. A visit to the Barnes is a feast for (or assault on?) the senses, and even a little bit of the totality can be overwhelming.

But the Morisot exhibit was different, just room after room of one gifted woman’s artistic expression. Berthe was every bit as talented as Degas or Monet in my view, but she’s been all but forgotten. With shimmering brushstrokes, she immortalized the 1880’s ideal of Parisian beauty in fashion and furniture—but she also painted gorgeous still lifes and landscapes. Her favorite subject was her daughter Julie, who she captured playing an instrument, holding a doll, and staring confidently at her mom, the artist.

So what do we have in common? Besides having daughters named Julie?

I was struck by this: for most of her working life, Berthe did not have any kind of artist’s studio. Instead, she drew and painted at her kitchen table, in her bedroom, in the back yard. I can imagine her, in the thick of her household hubbub, drawing energy from the people and things swirling around her. I can see her clearing the breakfast dishes to make space for her palette. I have done the same, moving someone’s cereal bowl to make room for my laptop. The core message is that creativity and inspiration will find a way through the most mundane circumstances. I don’t kid myself that I am on Morisot’s level of talent, but I get her milieu, big time.

It has taken over a century for Berthe Morisot to begin to get her due. My prayer, for my daughters, and all the daughters of our time, is that they may be recognized, while they live, for the great gifts they have to give. May they have the choice of working in the dining room or the board room, both valid places for their talent to flourish.

Berthe, mon amie, I wish we had shared the planet at the same time. I think we really would have clicked. But I still count you as a friend, and I hope future generations will be enriched by your vision, your beautiful impressions of the people and places you loved.

Eugene Manet (Bethe's husband) and young Julie