Friday, February 26, 2021


 Pencils in short supply this past year? Maybe, maybe not. No real shortage because major colored pencil makers have amped up their production to meet the demand from all those people at home furiously coloring in coloring books.

What a sight to imagine: people hunched over inked drawings, filling in the spaces with color after color.  I think of the monk Eadfrith, who reportedly spent five years in the 700s sequestered on Holy Island near Lindisfarne in England, painting what is now recognized as the most beautiful illuminated manuscript of the four Christian Gospels. The Lindisfarne Gospels now rest in the British Library. I marvel at how dedicated someone could be to spend five years hovering over pieces of calfskin vellum. We are lucky to have the document. As Eadfrith was busy painting, the Vikings began their invasions of the British Isles. The Gospels were almost lost when Lindisfarne, which was considered the holiest place in England at the time, was ransacked. 

courtesy of the British Library website

In the spirit of Eadfrith, maybe those of us sequestered for the last year realize the benefits of focusing on art. We have grown to appreciate the meditative quality of calligraphy, the pleasure of working with wool through our fingers, of folding paper into intricate shapes, of kneading clay into bowls, or of working Zentangles, and the delight of bringing color to a drawing. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we came back from this past year knowing how to take the time to contemplate the world around us and to make something with our own hands? Will that be one of the big take-aways we have learned? 

I hope so.

Recently I Zoomed a workshop led by Andrea Wunderlich about the alphabet used in the Lindisfarne Gospels. She has developed the alphabet into a more modern style, but she has maintained the intricate decorations in the letters and the spaces around them. If you do Zentangles, you will be familiar with this style of decoration. Andrea asked us to pick a word to illustrate. I selected AMORE (it was Valentine's weekend). Andrea uses gouache to paint her words. I decided to use colored pencils since I have a better choice of colors than I do with my very small collection of gouache paints. At the top of the paper, I tried the different shades of red that I have to find the best combination to work with. Once finished, I thought about how easy it would be for a graphic designer now to upload this image to the computer to find the best color combinations. I still do it the old way, by hand and eye.

Check out information about the Lindisfarne Gospels at the British Library:

Try your hand at Zentangles:

To learn about Andrea Wunderlich and her calligraphy:

Discover Berea College, the first integrated college in the South, that continues to provide a liberal arts, tuition-free education. Berea is a faith-based college, but their curriculum would work at any college. They emphasize traditional crafts:

Friday, February 19, 2021


Have you noticed articles lately about the bookshelves behind newscasters and other pundits? I've read two such stories this week. I have the same impulse as the writers of these articles. When I watch a commentator, I gaze at the background behind them. Jonathan Capehart of the new duo, Brooks and Capehart on PBS NewsHour, has design books, round, spikey objects, and flowers behind him. David Brooks has moved from a narrow bookless room to a wider space with bookshelves arranged by the colors of their covers. Judy Woodruff and Amy Walters display biographies and history books. Yamiche Alcindor, when she isn't standing in front of the White House, is framed by a bright blue wall dotted with small golden pots filled with plants trailing down the wall. Lisa Desjardins and William Brangham both have cats that spread themselves out, stretch, and wander out of the picture. 

Inspecting these backgrounds gives me a window into their lives or at least their choices of how they would like to be viewed. What do you choose for your backdrop?

My backdrop

What is behind me breaks the rules suggested by Zoom: plain background and good lighting. I don't sit in front of a simple backdrop. Instead, behind me rests all the stuff I use for writing and artwork, for all to see. I like it because it is me. 

Looking at the bookshelves in our house, I realize that each one could speak about the reader.

My husband Bill, a voracious and discerning reader, teaches a class on Zoom and has carefully curated his background so that his students see his favorite photographs by other artists. No books on display, though his bookshelves are filled with diverse offerings. As a photographer, Bill exams each Zoom meeting he has in his quest for a well-lit space. He's noted that friends sit in their kitchens, craft rooms, offices, or with artwork behind them. How do you show yourself to the Zoom world?

You could be someone interested in crafts:

You could be a cook:

You could be an artist:

Bookshelves could speak volumes about you.

Friday, February 12, 2021


Photo by Bill Slavin


Thousands of migratory birds died in New Mexico last year. A freak phenomenon. Scientists suggested an early cold front, drought, smoke from the Western fires, lack of insects, too early migration. My heart dropped at the news. One less chance for us to witness the amazing flights of birds. Just one more indicator that climate change is wreaking havoc around us. Just one more sign of a horrific year.

Yet there is hope. Last year the United States rose to first place as the country with the most participants in the Audubon annual bird count held every year on Valentine's weekend. Americans submitted 169,234 checklists of birds witnessed over a four day period. The number of species reported worldwide increased to 6942 from 6699 the year before.

The most frequently reported species in North America have familiar names: Northern Cardinal, Dark-eyed Junko, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, and House Sparrow. Observed reported over seven million Snow Geese and 3.5 million Common Murre, the two most numerous birds counted in 2020, with Canadian Geese right behind. Because of the mild winter in North America, the flocks of geese stayed farther north longer unlike other migratory birds that began returning to their summer homes too early.

Photo by Bill Slavin

This year as I worked on homemade Valentine's, I decided to participate by counting the types of birds that frequent our backyard. The instructions are simple: watch birds for at least 15 minutes or more for four days and record the species findings on one of two apps, Merlin Bird ID or eBird Mobile app. At first, I wondered how I could count birds as I have done for the annual bee/pollinator count. The instructions for counting bees are simple too: sit down and observe a single plant or tree. Count the number and type of bees/pollinators that you see. I found that most plants that attract bees had less than a dozen, so they were easy to count. In the Spring though, trees such as Japanese Maples and flowering fruit trees can have swarms of bees -- a good thing -- but impossible to count each one. When my 15 minutes was up, I sent my information to the Big Bee Count organization.

Since we are still enveloped in COVID-19 restrictions, counting birds or bees is a perfect activity, a chance to get outdoors. What else is more important than taking the time to honor the life that lives right around us?

Photo by Bill Slavin

Just a note: If you live in Northern California, birdwatchers recommend that you take down your bird feeders right now, clean and sterilize them. Salmonella is affecting birds this season. Let them forage in natural places instead of your feeder.

Read more about the annual bird count here:

Download one of the apps for the annual bird count:

Read about counting bees here:

Friday, February 5, 2021


"Carpe Diem is engraved on my heart."  M.F.K. Fisher

Did you figure out the CRYPTOGRAM last week? I realized that this particular quote, one of my favorites, was a hard one because it did not include any of the clues in it that I gave you. 

I hope you solved the puzzle.

Nostalgia lives in my bones. Someone said that you can't be nostalgic for times when you weren't even alive. I disagree. Owens Lee Pomeroy said it well, 

"Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: you find the present tense, the past perfect."

A former English teacher like me appreciates that idea.

I scour my parents' photo albums for subjects to paint. The photographs make me nostalgic for that era.They both were good photographers and captured the sweetness and simplicity of the times they lived in as young adults (though there is no mention of the Great Depression). In one album my dad displayed outings with numerous girlfriends with the last third of the book devoted to my mother on a beach in Los Angeles.

They both moved to LA from different parts of the country several years apart, taking photos along the way. My mother came with her parents. My father drove with a couple of buddies. They road on similar roads, at some point both on part of Route 66. They made stops on the Plains for herds of sheep crossing their path, to admire the snow-capped Rockies, to swim in crystal-clear lakes in Utah, to stand above the Rose Bowl, and to gaze up at Mt. Wilson Observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains. Both of their roads led them to Disney Studios where they worked, met, and eventually married.

Their lives were not really the stuff of fairy tales. They had the normal challenges and disagreements of married life, but also a lot of simple fun. I was reminded of those long-ago times while at a writing workshop based around the Last House of M.F.K. Fisher, her ranch-style home at the Audubon Canyon Ranch in Napa Valley. M.F.K. Fisher was a writer about food and the importance of good meals. Her house is a simple one-story building, which Fisher renovated to include a large, deep red bathroom, where she occasionally welcomed guests. The bathroom reminded me of a master bath in an apartment in Paris that was offered to us for rent. The bath, designed in the 1920s, had a daybed where the woman of the house could lounge. The bohemian quality of Fisher's house offers the same feeling of time past from that era, the Lost Generation after World War I. Fisher's house seems spare now with quiet places to write. Fisher's iconic peacock chair sits on a porch overlooking the valley. Last House is a house to write in, full of memories and good food.

In her book, The Art of Eating, she wrote,

"We watched as in a blissful dream the small fat hands moving like magic among bottles and small bowls and spoons and plates, stirring, pouring, turning the pan over the flame just so, just so, with the face bent keen and intent above."

As you read this, don't you feel you are a part of the company watching the cook prepare the meal? Fisher uses a tempo and repetition of similar words throughout the paragraph to invite you in. I can remember moments being in my family's kitchen studying my mother mix, roll out, and shape cookies and pies and cakes. We would wait impatiently for her to finish so that we could lick the remains from the bowl as the aroma of the baking goods filled the house. Moments like these, are where the perfect past and nostalgia are born.

Like the madeleine in Proust's Swann's Way, do you have memories that surface when you see, smell, touch, or taste something?

Read more about M.F.K. Fisher here:

Visit the Last House:

Thank you to Elizabeth Fishel for offering a writer's workshop on Fisher and the art of food.

Not too late to sign up this email-a-day to honor Black History Month: