Sunday, June 27, 2010


I still wonder at the transformation that continues to manifest itself in my life.  After moving to this rural community 4 years ago, we revelled in the garden and it has grown (thanks far more to Ben's efforts than my own: I am the harvester-cook, not the digger-planter) to a satisfyingly grand scale. But the "back 40", as I like to call the wild portion of our 1.4 acres beyond the vegetable garden, has slowly gotten out of control.  The first two years we hired in someone to disc & plant it for us, so we had beautiful buckwheat one summer with sunflowers mixed in, then winter wheat the following spring.  But that was expensive and somewhat unpredictable as we depended upon our neighbors with farming equipment to do this for us.  So we gave up the last couple of years and watched it go to weeds.

Last week Ben took the plunge and, after doing his typically meticulous research, bought a secondhand 1950 Ford tractor -- beautifully maintained and restored -- and several huge attachments including a bush hog.  Who would have thought how utterly exciting I would find this addition!   It means we can now begin to truly shape the land, take control of our own property and make something really wonderful.  I can even imagine learning how to drive it myself.  It is so beautifully simple and straightforward!  It all makes clear sense.  And it is so beautiful.  I drove in yesterday from a week away and saw it sitting in the drive next to Ben's Subaru and was jsut thrilled. You might remember my earlier posts about tractor ribbons and the tractor parade, so to have a sweet machine of our own like this is fabulous.
This morning in a short space of time Ben jumped on it and bush-hogged (what a word) the weeds in back, and though it is scruffy and ugly at the moment it is now a ripe slate for our visions.  Ben wants to build a labyrinth suitable for riding horses in (something he has been working toward with his sister Cordelia , for the Labyrinth Society Gathering this fall).  I would love to see a field of lavender out there some day. We are this much closer to those visions now.

I should note that Ben is particularly in his element here -- a lifelong connection satisfied.  His family was in the farm machinery business as Nicholson's of Newark, for a century, winning gold medals at the Great Exhibition for their innovative equipment.  Ben was raised in the expectation that he would take over the business, but in the 1970's the business went under in the dire British economy and Ben went on to architecture school instead.  I hope he will mount the Nicholson's tractor seat (which currently hangs over the front door) on his new baby.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I have found myself tremendously gifted with friends, many of whom have helped me to understand the real meaning of the word "joy". Today I am inspired to write about this, because of the passing of a dear woman whom I feel privileged to refer to as a my friend, Jane Blaffer Owen, who left us last night, during the summer solstice. Two months ago, another friend, Claudia Elliott, passed at dawn on Easter morning. The timeliness for each is metaphoric, and helps me to accept these losses with a sense of happiness at the rightness of the larger plan.

Both of these women were inspirations not only to myself but to many, many others, particularly in my new home of New Harmony. Claudia grew up in New Harmony, left it for more dynamic places while her mother Josephine Elliott was busy archiving the town's history, and returned here as her parents faded. She and her husband John were deeply involved in the town's creative musical life, as well as in the profound social network in this tiny place. As I got to know Claudia, and her brilliantly transparent, all-seeing eyes, she helped guide me through extremely difficult emotional times. Claudia was ill: disabled by the time I met her and living her rich life out of the confines of a broken body and a wheelchair, but her exceptional tenacity and creative exuberance never left her and I was deeply inspired by this gift of life & joy she gave to all around her. When her spirit left her body at dawn on Easter, the town made a collective, deep sigh of loss, but her memorial service was joyous and we all felt she had been set free. I was left to savor my good fortune in having known her, and to try to incorporate some of the insights she gave me into my own life.

Jane Owen is to be credited for bringing Ben and me here: yes, it was our own decision to change our busy urban lives in for rural peace, but she was the catalyst, the muse, perhaps the siren as I often jokingly said, who lured us here with glimpses of the joy and wonder of this Utopia we now endeavor to maintain.

Last night, a group of faithful friends and new acquaintances were walking the Cathedral Labyrinth in New Harmony -- one of her many spiritual gifts to the town --bringing in the Summer Solstice. Mrs Owen's dear friend, Phillip Newell, recited prayers and chimes were rung as the sun set. In Houston, Mrs Owen passed on, no doubt aware of the love and prayers being felt for her all over New Harmony.

For me, she was an example of the possibility of real joy. We all strive for "happiness", success; I left Chicago looking for something else, for peace. We had met Jane Owen in visits to New Harmony -- a fascinating place made more so by her myriad cultural and architectural projects -- and she kindly assisted us in every imaginable way to make first the decision, and then the transition. She included us frequently at her table, where we met literary and spiritual lights, and her air of serenity and deep joie de vivre floated over us all like a magical charm. She honored me by endorsing my artwork, often climbing the 23 steps to my studio (at the age of 95!) and sending visitors and friends there frequently. She showed her trust in me by sharing the draft of her memoir with me, from which I learned her story in her own words, and some of the real difficulties as  well as the triumphs she had faced in her life. I felt by hearing her voice in those pages I knew her much better, and could imagine her as a dynamic younger woman, in her prime (at my age!) and working with great architects & artists to shape New Harmony.

There has been conversation for years about what might happen to New Harmony when she passed, as she has been so benficent here. My view has always been that she has been carefully building a generation of cultural successors who will be able to maintain, and more importantly add to, the town she so loved. I know Ben and I are deeply congnizant of wanting to make a lasting contribution here, and in our own ways we devote tremendous amounts of time & creative energy to the life here. We endeavor to bring people here -- professional friends, close friends, students, colleagues -- to show the world what is possible in a small rural town when imagination is set loose. I know I have huge ideas about what a creative Utopia means, and my friends & I regularly have long discussions about how our own activities might work to manifest good and make this town of 850 more self sustaining as well as more nurturing. To Mrs Owen, I pledge now to continue the joy and the generosity she has shown to me, and to try to share my own humble version of it wherever I go.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


I have never pretended tp be a quilter -- last quilts I made were in high school out of dressmaking scraps. They were pieced simply of squares but the colors were carefully chosen. I made one of pale fabrics, one of blue fabrics, one of red fabrics, then I learned to weave and never devoted much time to quilting again.

However I did leap forward last fall when it was announced that the annual Labyrinth Society Gathering would be held here in New Harmony (and that my husband Ben, and his sister Cordelia Rose, would be co-chairs of the event) and suggested that a community quilt be made from one of Ben's square labyrinth drawings (see the page from his most fabulous sketchbook, above).

It seemed straightforward enough: I imagined a strip-pieced quilt with a few right angle turns. So I proposed it as a silent auction item and we invited the membership of TLS to come forward and help make it. 14 quilters + myself + Cordelia (who had not sewn since the 1970s, presumably when she left her position assisting in the Textile Department at the V&A -- now there's a recommendation!), have each received a section to make. Ben since converted the process into an intellectually simple, but physically somewhat challenging, method of using one, diagonally striped, square to piece the entire quilt. Elegant in its thought, but a bit tricky in execution as it makes nearly all seams on the bias.

I chose some fabulous fabrics from one of my favorite websites (
and after Ben had an architecture student draft the pattern, I cut the fabric up and sent it out. The blocks are beginnign to come back. They are gorgeous. Cordelia got together with her friend Sam Stineburg last week (an expert quilter who has tested the pattern for us and given us priceless advice) and she triumphantly wrote that their blocks are in the mail to me and here are photos of their process. Thanks to all of you quilters who are helping us achieve this!