Home, where the strange is familiar

Pink haired woman with argyle leggings and pink sneakers walking past a long neglected storefront on a North Clark Street, Chicago

Yes, I’m home, back in the city.  After a good night’s sleep in my own bed, I’m up writing my post in a way that’s customary: propped up in the bed in our spare bedroom, drinking my morning coffee.  I do my best work in the early morning, before starting my day.  I swear I could produce a masterpiece in my bathrobe.  Luckily Mr C sleeps late, which gives me lots of time to compose.

What does “home” mean to residents of a big city?  Driving around the Twin Cities got me thinking about how cities differ, and how I’ve come to think of Chicago as ‘my city.’  Born elsewhere, I came to Chicago in adulthood.  My decision to stay here and make this my home was one I made deliberately.  Beyond my domicile and a network of personal and professional relationships that sustains me, lies a vast population and universe that will always be strange.  Knowing it–and loving it–could take an eternity, especially if you’re a female cat like me.

I chip away at its strangeness, recently with photography and with blogging.  With each post and image, the swath of association and meaning broadens.  The city may never cease to be strange, but its strangeness is now familiar to me.  A pink-haired lady with Fair Isle tights?  She’s my fellow-wayfarer, setting forth with faux-leopardskin pack and pink-sneakered stride.

My new office

My new office

I call it that, but I’ve been renting this space for more than a year.  It’s where I should be revising the Book That Will Make Me Famous or founding the Online Media Empire That Will Make Me Rich, one or the other.

You may think I’m joking, but I have a long manuscript sitting in a box that’s been provisionally accepted at a major academic publisher, and I do wish to be making some serious money.

The office has an enormous window, offering views of a number of historic buildings.  If I stand just right and bend a certain way, I can even see the elevated train as it runs by.

This office is a sort of proxy for my professional identity.  It looks a little better now, though, than it did in November 2011, when this picture was taken.


Viggo Johansen's 1891 "Glade jul" (Silent Night), from the Hirschsprungske Samling in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Because tomorrow is my birthday, this period at the end of December is always one of personal reflection as well as a time to prepare with everyone else for a new year.  My marriage three years ago to Mr C on January 2nd has only strengthened my sense that this is a season of new beginnings.

This beautiful painting by Viggo Johansen of Denmark, painted in 1891, is one that I have liked since I was young.  “Silent Night” conveys a sense of wholeness and joy through the device of a family joined in a Christmas-eve circle about their tree.  The light, the stances of the figures, and the painting’s message of domestic yet spiritual wonder and happiness are deeply affecting.

The family depicted was the painter’s own.  In truth, the work of creating this image was a terrible trial to all involved.  The mother (whose back is to us) and children had to pose for their painter-father for many, many hours.  Though the painting was begun at Christmastime, it was not actually finished until April, after many interventions to preserve and eventually replace the dried-out tree.  The mother grew weary of the project, especially when it extended into a period when each of the children came down with the measles.

When finally finished and exhibited, the painting failed to sell.  Eventually, however, a buyer came forward, placed the work in a museum, and thus ensured the continued appreciation of what would become the painter’s most famous work.

The painting’s comic back-story is a poignant reminder of the strange and arduous process through which we all struggle to attain something joyous and whole.  It offers a salient lesson to bear in mind as we head into the holiday and a season of new starts.

Merry Christmas!

A romance that’s over

Celia's books (Credit: Celia Her City)

Today my nephew is coming over to help me move some books and bookcases.

I thought of my books last while lying on the loveseat in my study a few weeks ago.  I was tired that day, and found myself looking up at these books, with which I had spent so many happy and difficult hours, in many different phases of my life: when I was a little girl, a teenager learning about life, when I wanted to be a novelist, when I was in grad school studying history and (despite myself) becoming a historian.  Some of the books I used when I worked as a tutor.

Now that I am writing more every day, there is less time to read, and there is no natural place for some of these books.  My intellectual life–where is it today?  I have become a more pragmatic learner, finding what I need to for the day, not looking ahead, not dreaming.  But not being stuck in becoming either.  For better or worse, I have lost my dependency on my old books, and as a consequence I’m having trouble finding the right place for them in my home and my life.

The gift of cookies

Viennese crescents (Credit: Celia Her City)

Yesterday I spent almost the whole day baking.  Among other things, I made a batch of Viennese crescents, which is a recipe I love because it’s elegant and makes many dozen cookies.   Plus it’s easy.

I favor recipes that have familiar associations.  This one I first made with a friend in my first or second year of college.  We were in charge of providing the cookies for a holiday study-break and made these in the basement kitchen of our dorm.  My friend found this recipe, which we had to try because, in the introductory text, some food authority had declared it “the greatest cookie recipe ever devised.”  I’m not sure about that, but it sure is fine.

These particular cookies are made with ground walnuts, but there are many national variations of this recipe, some using almonds, others leaving out the nuts entirely.  Butter and powdered sugar make the cookie.

Baking, like jewelry, is all about the associations.  The memories that crowd around our favorite recipes keep us company in the kitchen, a gift that is every bit as precious as pearls.


White Christmas screenshot of the leads singing "Snow"To watch White Christmas is to think of the past, when I would watch this movie with my mother and sisters when I was a kid.

Last night, it was sad to see White Christmas on television.  My mind was full of the day’s news: of the children and teachers senselessly slain in a Connecticut school, of the loss of life and innocence that the president expressed so well in his remarks.

As the nation ponders this terrible mass murder, I wish for a return to wholesomeness and moral discrimination in our culture.  May we care for one another better, and be mindful of the cultural examples that we hold up as models for the young.

May the souls of the departed rest in peace.

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