A friend was picking my brain this summer for places that I go to write. Now that I’m living that good good #giglife, I can pretty much work from anywhere, so she assumed I had a hundred and one places squirreled away in my work-from-all-over office catalog.
Rumor had it, she said, that this space was open to the public, and it was beautiful, and you could just go sit in there and read and write! And no one asked any questions about your right to be in the club! Or your preference of golf swing! Or if your Izod shirt was in the wash! Sorry, my club stereotypes are very late-’90s.
Nevertheless, there it sat gathering dust on my radar all fall. Like treasure I knew the route to but didn’t feel worthy enough to hunt down. I was intimidated by the bougey rep of an “athletic club” and “chic hotel” and, just, you know, the whole notion that this was a private place for fancy folks, with a shrimp cocktail concierge and warm towelette dispenser on each elevator.
Per usual, I was wrong. And I took the stairs, so I don’t know about the elevator.
My friend was right: This second floor space inside the CAA is open to the public, and reading and writing in it kinda feels like reading and writing inside a castle!
There are dark, intricately carved wooden beams, ornate leather chairs, a crackling fireplace, and snow globe-style views of Michigan Ave and Millennium Park. There’s no shrimp cocktail concierge, but there was a very friendly waiter who brought me water and coffee and snacks whenever I need it. I mean, you do have to pay for that stuff, but it’s basically a BYOB(ook) library with food and drink service.
These are 68 itty-bitty rooms built on a scale of one inch to one foot, and they’re decorated to look like European and American interiors from the late 13th century all the way to the 1930s. AND, right now some are decorated for the holidays. Eeeeeee!
I recently went to look at the Thorne Rooms on my lunch break (giggity #giglife… I was posted up in the Starbucks across the street). While there, I broke a record for “Longest Time Spent Squeal-Clapping and Saying Oh This Is Just Delightful Over and Over Again.”
Every year, around this time, more than two decades ago, the first-graders of St. Mary’s Elementary School would gather into the first floor lobby of their brick school building, which was dwarfed, like a first-grader to a sixth-grader, by the soaring, heaven-scraping church in front, and sit their bony little bottoms on carpet worn down from more than four decades of Mary Janes, saddle shoes, Reeboks, and now Nikes.
They were, around this time, used to gathering in such a way, as there was an Advent something or another happening in these makeshift assemblies once a week every December, when the whole school of bony little bottoms would swim out from their individual classrooms and sit together on that same worn carpet and sing and read and light a candle in anticipation of Santa Jesus coming to town. Purple. Purple. Pink. Purple.
But this first-grader thing was just for the first-graders, which seemed very special. Both classes would sit down to listen to Mrs. Sinnot tell a story, whether she was your first-grade teacher or not, which also seemed very special; any shift in the natural school day order created a little baby-sized buzz of excitement.
Now, this Mrs. Sinnot (pronounced sin-ut, but it’s, indeed, very ironic to think of a Catholic school teacher named SIN-NOT… maybe I’m remembering the spelling incorrectly or maybe this is just another little universe miracle we can all thank baby Santa-Jesus for later), this Mrs. Sinnot was just wonderful, as so many first-grade teachers are. Her salt and pepper hair was cropped to the exact dimensions popular with fairies around that time, and she was about the size of the half-pint chocolate milk cartons I’d cup like gold coins in my palm each day in the cafeteria lunch line.
We were gathered here, like the first-graders before us and the first-graders yet to come, to listen to Mrs. Sinnot read aloud her favorite book: “Strega Nona” by Tomie dePaola.
Published in 1975, “Strega Nona” is about an old woman in Southern Italy who is a witch doctor (!) (which is rad but, mind you, she’s never called as much in this Catholic school setting) and she travels the countryside helping cure villagers’ maladies, like warts, because this is a kid’s book and the bubonic plague is some heavy shit.
She also makes pasta. A lot, lot, lot of pasta. Because… her pot is magic! And this magic pot can make as much pasta as Strega Nona ever wants, as long as she blows three kisses <kiss, kiss, kiss> into the pot after singing her magic, pasta-producing spell. (Today this spell is called Grubhub.)
All is well in Strega Nona’s softly lit world, where the colors are creamy and the edges are not sharp, until one day, a man named Big Anthony, her helper, overhears her spell but doesn’t see her do the three-kiss closer <kiss, kiss, kiss>. So, with good intentions but not enough information, Big Anthony makes a magic pot of pasta… but doesn’t know how to turn it off. So pasta grows and goes and grows and goes until it threatens to drown out the whole village in its doughy doom!
When Strega Nona returns, feet sore from a hard day traipsing the hills to bring kindness and, I presume, lavender oils to the warty townspeople, she stops the spell and makes Big Anthony clean up the mess by handing him a fork. Mangia!
… I love this Strega Nona story so much, especially because it’s tied to such a happy memory—someone lovely reading aloud, in a mysteriously exciting school-day kind of way. But even so, I completely forgot about Strega Nona and her magic and that there was ever a time when I was innocent enough to delight in nothing but the imagining of pasta taking over a whole town.
Then I saw a random headline somewhere about Tomie dePaola’s new book “Quiet,” and it wasn’t his name that alit me from within, but that unmistakable illustrative style. I saw the gentle outline of his characters, the thoughtful pastel colors from his worlds, and like the snap-pop of a lighter, my mind shot out “STREGA NONA” from the murky depths, and off I went chasing the clickbait. Finding meaningful stuff in such as way is modern day magic, yes?
“Quiet,” like Strega Nona, is also magical, with illustrations like a hug, but the magic is found in something we all have. No secret recipe here. No fated headline coming your way. Instead, the magic can be found in quiet. In stillness. In the <kiss, kiss, kiss> of shhhhh-ing that can stop, not pasta, but a brain from overflowing.
Read the book here or the Kirkus review here. Related: This wonderful meditation on stillness, gifted to me recently from a new friend.
Agnes Richter was institutionalized in Germany in 1893 when she was 49 years old. She pieced together this jacket during her time in the asylum using materials on-hand, like linens, wool, and thread, likely from her work as a seamstress in the institution. The embroidery is worn down and sweat stains abound, but some of the writing can still be read in deutsche schrift, a German script that’s nearly obsolete. Some of the phrases historians have deciphered: “I am not big,” “I plunge headlong into disaster,” and “583m,” her case number. Read more here.
We uninstalled Gone, Country a few weekends ago, and I want to say THANK YOU from the bottom of my blueberry heart to everyone who came out to shows, performed at shows (you all were incredible!), bought an embroidery, bought a book, and/or simply said a kind word or thoughtful insight about the work/concept in all its parts.
I can’t believe I did this, and I am pinching myself a little still… I couldn’t have survived it in one piece without all the encouragement, so thank you. Especially to Justin, and the Slate Arts Gallery team. Can’t wait to do another one following, like, a six-month nap…
I hope you think of me whenever you see gaudy lawn flamingos doin’ it for themselves. Just trashy pink collar girls trying to stand strong in a white collar world. We gonna make it, Pip.
Slate Arts gallery in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood is hosting an exhibition of my embroidery work throughout the month of September! Each Saturday at 8 p.m., join us for a **free** performance of storytelling and live lit by me and some of my favorite writers in the city. The show Gone, Country includes 20 pieces of embroidered artwork framed in repurposed barn wood, two banner collages, and a creative nonfiction book I wrote as a companion piece to the exhibit ($20). See you there!
The objects we use on a daily basis play a big role in our cultural story and memory. As writers, we know the importance of objects in terms of symbolism—and ensuring we are, when writing fiction at least, placing historically accurate objects into settings, character descriptions, and dialogue.
Your Civil War heroine with an iPhone is no bueno, bud.
That’s why tomes like “The Middle Ages In 50 Objects” (Cambridge University Press, 2018) are so helpful to writers doing research for a novel or screenplay in this time period. “50 Objects” features beautiful images of objects from the Cleveland Museum of Art paired with an essay that digs into its visual and cultural significance within the wider context of how the object was made or used.
The book is divided into four topic areas (The Holy and the Faithful; The Sinful and the Spectral; Daily Life and its Fictions; and Death and Its Aftermath) and loaded with fresh historical insights provided by the scholars Elina Gertsman (professor of Medieval Art at Case Western Reserve University) and Barbara H. Rosenwein (a medievalist who specializes in the history of emotions).
And though it was written in part to progress academic conversations about the Middle Ages—and recently made the High Brow/Brilliant end of New York Magazine’s approval matrix—this book is a visual and intellectual goldmine for arm chair art history lovers. <raises hand> Reading this book was like getting an answer key to some incredible works of art; like sitting in on a university lecture from the comfort of my aforementioned arm chair.
Example: Object 22’s painting of the Madonna and Eve on wood panel features inverted letters signifying the way Mary supposedly reversed Eve’s original sin; Eve’s sexuality is underscored by the Tree of Knowledge growing between her legs. (Which, if ever there was an ideal place for a tree of knowledge to grow, I’d say it’s there… She wouldn’t even have to stand up to pick out a new book to read from its branches! #teameve)
I had the pleasure of asking Elina and Barbara a few questions about the process of writing their new book, why they made the curatorial decisions they did, what objects in the book were most interesting to study, and more. Read their thoughtful answers below, then get your own copy of “The Middle Ages In 50 Objects” here!
The hard cover is coffee table chic.
Why are objects worth studying in order to understand the past?
Objects are not just things “out there” but agents of history in every way. They are created for reasons ranging from utterly practical to outrageously frivolous—but always in ways that are particular to certain people and places at particular times. As they come into being and use, they carve out their own meanings and interact with other objects—and people. Consider the scene of the Crucifixion (Object 43): the bottom of the Cross depicted there has been touched by pious fingers and lips so many times that the paint and ink are smudged.
The Middle Ages was a culture of the senses. Think of the incense perfuming the air in places of worship (churches and mosques alike), the music of liturgy and entertainment, the visions of color and light afforded by manuscript illuminations, the taste of the Eucharist melting in the mouth, and the invitation to touch offered by ivory and alabaster. Considering objects in all their materiality opens a royal path to this rich and little-known culture of the past.
How did you narrow it down to just 50 objects?
We wanted to produce a book that would be both comprehensive and yet not overwhelming. We knew that each object we chose would be worthy of many pages of explanation, but we decided to limit ourselves there as well. The number 50 seemed a good solution: enough to cover several entangled cultures that had to be considered together in order to illuminate each one.
How would you describe working on this book? Was it a joyful experience?
Joy is the right word. The book almost wrote itself once we had decided on the themes and the objects that belonged to them. We generally worked in relay. Elina lit the torch, as it were, by focusing on the objects, teasing out the network of associations they triggered, visual discourses they tapped into, and the ways in which they were viewed in the past. Then it was Barbara’s turn to consider the larger context, wrapping each object in the intricate web of events, patrons, social needs, and religious uses that explained its creation and importance.
Why did you decide to balance the representation of objects used or cherished by the elites and those used or cherished by the non-elites?
There is no denying that medievalists have on-hand more material objects from the elites than from the non-elites. Patrons of the arts—both individuals and institutions—were normally wealthy, and we today prize the results of their largesse and taste—the astonishing delicacy of Books of Hours, emotionally evocative images of Saint John softly resting his head on Christ’s shoulder, or elegant tombstones made to mark the burial of pious Muslims. But it is also important to see and understand the material lives of others less well-to-do, for they represent the majority of people in every period. When we view an iron barbute (Object 37), we are brought into the world of the soldier.
Its pits and dents remind us of the everyday dangers and hardships suffered by men in the Venetian army garrison at Negroponte. Negroponte? What was Venice doing there, 1,200 miles from home? The barbute thrusts us into the thick of historical events, as Venice takes over an island that had long belonged to Byzantium. Surely, we must cherish it almost as much as the man whose life it protected.
I really enjoyed the way you divided the contents into four topic sections. Was it difficult to organize? What was your thinking behind dividing them in this way?
We didn’t want to do the West first, then the Islamic world, then Byzantium, or anything of that sort because those cultures were too intertwined to be conceptualized in that way. Nor did we want to divide the book by chronology, as if it were a textbook. We chose, rather, to work with themes that cut across the whole period and united all of the cultures.
Did any of the 50 objects surprise you or is there an object in the book you particularly liked learning about?
All of the objects turned out to have surprising twists and turns. But we especially enjoyed working on objects that opened up many different paths to explore. An example is the miniature from a Mariegola (Object 21), which required us to research Venetian guilds, anti-Jewish stereotypes, ideals of poverty, and the realities of untold wealth.
Can learning about objects from the Middle Ages help us better understand the objects of contemporary visual culture?
There is no question that sensitizing ourselves to the objects that mattered in the Middle Ages helps us understand our own. But beyond that, some of the same themes and uses have distant echoes today. This goes beyond obvious similarities, as for example the persisting image of the Crucifix. Consider depictions of Death as a skeleton (see Object 50) or contemporary gestures of prayer, which derive from the medieval practice (see the hands of the Virgin in Object 43).
If you could pick one or two objects from contemporary culture that you think future historians would find important, what would they be?
Barbara: I’d choose the Apple Watch, which is a fashion accessory, a practical conveyer of time and information, and a good symbol of our desire to be constantly in touch without touching.
Elina: I’d choose a pair of boots: shoes are always a powerful symbol of presence and loss, and the last century or so has been deeply fraught. Shoes are intimately tied to memory, often terribly so: the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum displays thousands of shoes, taken from the prisoners at the Majdanek concentration camp. Just two months ago, countless pairs of shoes were placed in front of the Capitolio in Puerto Rico, to mark the absence of men and women lost in Hurricane Mari and unaccounted for in the official death toll.
What has been inspiring you lately? Any books, music, podcasts, movies to recommend?
Barbara: In a small 12th-century church in Saint-Dyé, France, I heard an incredible concert that combined ancient instruments and songs with compositions by a living composer. The music worked together seamlessly, making the past present and the present past ways I could not have imagined. It was truly inspiring.
Elina: I am reading Paul Auster’s splendid “4321”—complex, sensitive, always stirring, dark at times, but somehow always jubilant. I’d recommend it without reservations.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
Barbara: This is tough. I’d love to have a good dinner conversation with many people. But I guess I can narrow it down to one party in which the guests might compare notes and (let’s hope) learn from one another. I’d invite Xanthippe, Socrates’ wife, who was billed as a nasty shrew by Xenophon; Christine de Pizan, a late medieval feminist who supported herself and her family by writing witty books for wealthy patrons; and lastly Catherine Dickens, best known as the unhappy wife of Charles Dickens. My first question to them would be: What place should women have in society, and what attitudes, institutions, etc. would be required to get them there? And my second question: If you could choose a different time and place to live in, what would it be? If I dared I might pose a third: What do you think of the LGBTQIA movement, and what do you think it portends for gender relations in the future?
Elina: I’d invite Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German visionary; Voltaire, an 18th-century French Enlightenment philosopher; and Andrei Voznesensky, an extraordinary Soviet/Russian poet, who died just a few years ago. I’d love to hear them talk about poetry, politics, and everything in between.
I rely on Justin to keep me musically relevant and he played this song for me last night on our drive home from Denny’s (home of the 11:30 pm breakfast-skillet-sanity-saver). Eminem is a genius. His syncopation, cadence, rhyme, and god-like wit are on full display in this song. What a fucking writer.
Jen’s death scene on “Dawson’s Creek”
We finally finished the last season of “Dawson’s Creek” on Hulu following a binge of all the seasons. It was my first time watching any of it, but I knew (because I didn’t live under a rock in the early 2000s like I kind of do now) that Pacey gets the gal and Jen bites the dust.
That said, I think I would have cried at poor, lovely Jen’s death regardless, but goosebumps? That was courtesy how subtly, reverently they shot this. I love the choice to make the scene include only Jen and Grams in the room; a nod to the special relationship these two share and how, I think, Grams is really Jen’s soulmate, not Jack.
One final breath and a peaceful farewell while Grams is sleeping. It’s so soft, that goodbye from Jen. We don’t get to see her face full on through most of the scene, graciously giving us one last chance to see life from Jen’s perspective. And of course Grams knows immediately that Jen has died. Grams always knows. Grams carries Jennifer in her heart. “I’ll see you soon, child.” So gentle and loving a send off. So perfect for these two.
Bravo, 20 years later. Holds up.
The robot dress in “McQueen” the documentary
In an attempt to get as much out of our Movie Passes as possible before it goes popcorn-stuffed-belly up, we’ve been seeing a lot of movies lately, including “McQueen,” the visual feasty documentary about poor English boy turned fashion world icon Alexander McQueen.
1) Yes, go see it. 2) Justin and I both were a bit surprised when I reacted so physically to the robot dress scene from his 1999 runway show. I started CRYING and, of course, had the aforementioned goosebumps. It was surprising because there was no real lead-up to this footage; it wasn’t supposed to be this super emotional moment. But it was for me and I’ve been trying to figure out why.
Here’s what I’ve landed on: This robot spray paint dress finale happened in the midst of the Y2K scare, thus, everyone kind of saw these robots as menacing the model and destroying her virginal gown. But when I watched it, I thought it was so hopeful! The robots dance with the model, learn to move with her and try to learn her language, and then they add something to her experience. Sure, what they do to her dress is messy and has an underlying violence to it, but I see in this choice McQueen’s optimism, his openness, his ability to find something beautiful in the darkest places. Contrast that with his last runway show, “Plato’s Atlantis,” right before his suicide in 2010. The “robots” of that famous show were cameras that moved in front of the audience and in front of the models; watching, waiting, judging with a lens. In those robots, the violence was clear, the battle lines drawn, the hope gone. We should have known then the tragedy to come.
It’s midday. I’m in Indiana at my mother-in-law Rosie’s house. Justin and I have come to spend a few days with her and, since we’re here and all, use her garage.
I need to paint 20 frames for an upcoming gallery show and the thought of me, Jackie “Oh, Did I Make That Mess?” Mantey, painting anything in our small apartment’s even smaller dining room nearly gives Justin a panic attack. (Poor guy had just recovered from some hives, which started not long after I decided to hand wash the dishes, a process that involves me swirling around and brilliantly reconfiguring whatever gooey gunk is decorating them. Then giving myself a huge pat on the back.)
So here I am, an Indiana artist for the day. I stand in my temporary studio, its regular vehicular tenants parked in the driveway to soak in some sun. I’m wearing ratty clothes, my hair high in a messy bun. Before I start painting, I take a minute to look around the subdivision. It’s a weekday, but children are playing outside. Summer vacation is in full swing. In fact, it just started, and so the cut grass still smells good and the hot blacktop still feels electrifying, even under tender bare feet. Popsicle brain freeze, sunburns, scraped knees, skulls shattered by the diving board, et al. The whole grab bag of other playing-outside maladies haven’t ruined anyone’s fun just yet.
I wave with my paint brush at a Sidewalk Boy rolling past on his scooter. They’re so cute when they’re pre-pubescent.
With that, I set about painting all of these frames a color called Hawaiian Luau Pink. I used to avoid my penchant for pink. It’s so feminine and totally not as cool as black, which I also like but not as much as I love pink. Choosing pink for these frames signals an acceptance of the part of myself that embraces traditional girlishness. It’s not the “girlishness” that bugs me. It’s the “traditional.” My experience is that people who like things done “traditionally” usually suck giant Hawaiian Luau Pink balls.
Rosie comes out to help me at one point and we have a great time. Listening to music, talking, painting, enjoying the breeze. Art-making offers a physical experience for creativity that writing just can’t. When you’re writing, your fingers and mind are working a mile a minute, but that’s about it. I like using my body to express something. Holding the frames tilted until my arms shake, just so I can get the right stroke angle for the paint brush. Pushing needle through a piece of paper until my pointer and middle fingers are calloused. Yes. More. Please.
One coat in and the color is is looking pretty dynamite. The rough wooden surface of the frames is taking the paint exactly like I expected, like I hoped it would. It’s seeping into every curve and splinter, acting as a highlighter, letting the old barn wood, which all the frames are made out of, tell its own story—just a little more fabulously than it would “traditionally.”
But I decide the paint’s soaking in pretty deeply as a base. A second coat is in order. The physicality and repetitiveness of going over one coat of paint with a second is even more therapeutic than the first go-round. Dip. Slow. Paint. Twist. Dip. Slow. Paint. Twist. As I finish dressing frames 18, 19, 20 in their second coat, I keep eyeing frames 1 through 10, which are nearly dry. Can I do a third coat? Should I? I really want to. Painting is so fun. I’m not tired yet. I’m not bored. This is giving me peace. I want to do another round.
An argument about whether or not to do this—because they really look pretty perfect with just two coats—swirls around inside me, like Sidewalk Boys circling their skateboards around the floor of an empty pool. My brow is furrowed when Rosie joins me in inspecting the frames. She confirms my suspicions: One more coat and the messy roughness of the frames would be overtaken, lost in the Luau, swimming in too many layers of pink. The story of the frames, of the work inside them and the wood than comprises them, would be drowned out.
I take a deep breath and agree. Put the paintbrush down. Watch the neighbor kids play.