Touched by an Artist’s Power and Purpose  

Photo Jenn Hassin

She was not what I expected. The pretty young woman that stood before us in the art gallery smiled demurely, as she was introduced. It was when she began to speak about her art and her life that I became captivated. There was a power that came from her words. Jenn Hassin spoke with an authority that is usually honed through age and experience.

Hers was a life filled with clashes of the presumed and the unexpected: not the childhood one would hope for, a family friend turned mentor, a stint in the military, a college degree in studio art, a divorce, a single mom, a second marriage, another child and a happy, supportive extended family made up of an ex-husband and his parents. Her personality celebrated a dichotomy of military precision and artistic creativeness. This helped to explain how she single handedly was able to get her work, Letters of Sacrifice, exhibited at the Pentagon.

Kintsugi: that was the philosophy that this exhibit was based on. Jenn went on to explain that the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold dusted lacquer treats breakage and repair as a part of the object’s history. Rather than disguising the damage, it works to make it more beautiful.

Jenn’s art installation entitled Embrace the Damage took over the entire wall. As Jen explained, “…The wall of current newspapers from the U.S. and around the world are folded and assembled in a chaotic, yet systematic manner. They represent my personal feelings regarding the overwhelming nature of our current sociopolitical climate. The woven gold braid meandering through it signifies the crack in society and the beauty and strength that can and will prevail for having gone through our current tensions…”

The second part of the installation, Listen and Repair, was interactive. According to Jenn, “…One of the biggest problems we face today is that we do not listen to one another. This offers the opportunity to cut and then mend a tablecloth together; to commune with one another. A gold thread will be used to mend the tablecloth, creating a seam and a border that both divides and connects. I encourage those who participate to converse with one another. You will be sitting on garments and blankets from around the world; talk to one another about culture or about what is going on around the world. Connect or debate, but above all, hear one another. The outcome of the work when the exhibit ends is to create an image of what listening looks like…”

As she spoke, everything took on a new perspective. Jenn, so youthful, became the wise old sage. Her art, subtle in its tone, transformed itself into a powerful and intense message.

Jenn Hassin’s art is a rich composite of the atypical experiences that have shaped her life. Along with the hands of the many volunteer veterans that have touched so many of her works and helped her to bring her messages to life, so will you be deeply touched.

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Isabel

Photo Isabel

She was born with just right balance of moxie and elegance, which served her well throughout the years. As a little girl in the orphanage, she was always the one chosen to be dressed up in a pinafore with a big bow in her hair and displayed to the wealthy families who came to view the children for possible adoption. Even thought she would curtsy and smile just as she was taught, the little boys were always the first choice. It was Columbia, South America after all and the year was 1908.

It wasn’t a terrible life. The nuns were kind enough and even though they were too busy to pay individual attention to all their charges on a daily basis, they treated Isabel with a certain reverence. In her quiet, confident way, she seemed to stand out from the others and they sensed this. Mother Superior would always pat her on the head as she walked by and whisper “Eres una estrella brillante” (“You are a shining star”). Isabel treasured those words and would remember them for the rest of her life.

She had little choice where she was to go once she outgrew the orphanage. Mother Superior took special care to make sure that her placement fit her distinctive personality. She had her assigned to a positon as a maid in the home of a wealthy Spanish family who just happened to have a son close to her age. The rest would take care of itself, she surmised, as she smiled to herself and made the sign of the cross.

While Isabel felt fortunate to live with such luxury around her and absorbed the refinement and  gentility into her nature, the years were passing by and she had a gnawing feeling that there was more to life. While the family was kind to her, and their son, Manolo, was noticeably infatuated with her, once he left for college, she felt it was also time for her to move on.

She had saved up enough money for a one-way ticket by ship to New York and set her plan in motion. Jobs did not come easy then, but with much determination, she found herself reporting to work at the National Biscuit Company a week later. Convinced that her factory job of sorting and packing cookies would be short term, she did so with that same style and grace that she was now becoming known for.

She met Florence on her very first day of work. Both strong-minded and full of dreams, they soon became best friends. Together, they made up for their lack of formal education with their uncanny ability to charm their way in (or out) of any situation. They would pool their money and smile coyly as they greeted the owner of the fabric store and then ask for a discount. Isabel would design the dresses that Florence would sew. Now, they felt confident enough to attend a dance at one of the big New York clubs or take in a movie together. They held hands as they had their hair cut off into a bob, the flapper style that was considered a bit rebellious.

Isabel had originally chosen New York for two reasons: it’s allure and the fact that Manolo was attending college there. It did not take long for him to respond in person to the note, scented with her perfume that she hand-delivered to the school office. They married as soon as he graduated and settled on Long Island, a suburban area of New York City. Hers was a charmed life in a beautiful home with a loving, successful husband.

She remained best friends with Florence her entire life, which is where I come in. Florence was my grandmother and that is how I got to know Titi Isabel (an affectionate term for aunt, in Spanish). Neither my parents nor my grandparents would dare make any decorating or fashion decisions without consulting her first. She was our very own Latin Coco Chanel.

I was used to the fact that my family did not allow sleepovers with minor exceptions; Titi Isabel and Manolo being one of them. As the oldest child in a household with a toddler and an infant, I was delighted to be invited to spend the weekend in such a sophisticated, adult world. Our scrambled eggs were prepared with just a dash of white wine. For lunch, we’d dine on buttered chicken sandwiches served on Pepperidge Farms bread (rather than the big loaf of no-name, sale white bread we’d have at home). Titi Isabel and I would dress together for our outings to New York City “Eres una estrella brillante” she would whisper to me as she’d dab some of her perfume behind my ear.

It was when Titi Isabel died that I was finally able to get my grandmother to divulge the name of her perfume. Just like her past, she wished to keep her scent a secret, hoping it would fade away with time. Likening her choice of fragrance to her elegant nature, my hunt, for the elusive product that now had a name, started at the most prestigious department stores. Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel; my search continued as I told myself that, in this instance, money was no object.

I cannot say that I was disappointed when I paid the cashier at Walgreens for the largest bottle of that perfume that I could find. It seemed a testament to a life well lived, made up of the top and the bottom, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad. One woman’s choices made with an inherent confidence that could elevate nothing into something all because of who she was.

I dab that perfume behind my ears every day with a smile, hoping its bouquet will give me a whiff of who I might become if I let myself unfold just a bit more elegantly and mysteriously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping the Pro in Procrastination

Photo Procrastination

Usually, nothing changes my morning routine; I jump into my exercise clothes, enjoy a big cup of tea and after some quiet, reflective time, I hit the gym.

On this particular day, I could not get going. Out of the blue, I had an overwhelming urge to check the spice cabinet and make sure that all the spice bottles were still alphabetized properly. When was the last time it was cleaned out? Probably best to take everything out of the cabinet and clean the shelves.

Shoot, I was still in my exercise clothes. Quite a bit more time passed and I now had convinced myself that checking the expiration dates of all of the items in the pantry was very important to the health and welfare of my family. After sharpening all the pencils in the house, checking the weekly grocery sale circular and rearranging the sofa pillows, I finally pushed myself toward the door and started my day.

When it comes down to it, is there really anything wrong with procrastination? As long as the action of postponing or delaying something ultimately results in the task being completed, does it matter if it gets done now or last minute? I am more comfortable guided by to-do lists and immediate action, but some achieve peak efficiency, energy and focus, by using time pressure as a stimulus. It just comes down to a choice of what style we will use in order to get things done.

According to Psychology Today “…Diverting attention away from a task while holding information in working memory allows you to passively work on it until you are motivated by emotions or activated by a deadline to actively engage in the project. An internal solving process that is gradual, continuous and unconscious occurs during this incubation period…”

As a teenager, my job was to clean the bathrooms on Saturdays. I sometimes did so at 10 p.m., rationalizing that as long as it was done by midnight, I was accomplishing the task. I see this as a good example of the incubation process in action, rather than the suggestion of laziness made by my parents.

Come to think of it, if wives and mothers everywhere were made aware of the pros of procrastination, we would have less worldwide consumption of Advil and Tylenol and a more tolerant view of the lag time between the prompting and the actual completion of homework and odd jobs around the house.

 

 

 

 

 

The Cosmic Kiss: A Spiritual Signal

Post Cosmic Kiss

I had no plans to swim that morning, but I awoke to such a bright, beautiful day that I could not imagine exercising inside. After a quick cup of tea, I drove over to an outdoor pool I had recently found. After enjoying the solitude of swimming laps in my own lane, I got out to dry off. Sitting on the other side of the bench where I had left my towel was an attractive woman in her fifties, also drying off.

We started to chat and during our conversation, I mentioned that we were recent transplants from Chicago and still getting our bearings as to where to permanently settle down in Austin. She then mentioned that both she and her mom were planning to put their homes on the market. Would I be interested in some information? The hair on my arms stood straight up as we exchanged emails.

Before getting in the car, I decided to take a walk past a house that I had seen for sale last week that had intrigued me. I slowed down as I passed it, then walked to the corner and turned around. This time as I strolled by, I noticed a car parked in front and the gate open. I stood there for a minute surprised. Then, the real estate agent, whose photo was on the for-sale sign, opened the front door and with a big grin said hello and asked if I like to tour the house.

As JC* passed by the floral department at Trader Joe’s, she stopped to admire the lovely assortment. She bent down to take a sniff and thought about the men in her life that had always brought her flowers. They were all deceased now. She decided that she would just have to buy a bouquet for herself. When she took them to the register, the young man smiled at her and said …”It looks like one of the gladiolus bulbs is missing, so I am not going to charge you for these…”

It’s wonderful when the inexplicable surprises you. I call it a cosmic kiss. To me, it’s a sign from above that lets you know that someone is watching out for you, routing for you and that your thoughts and dreams aren’t in vain. As far as the kiss part, it’s not as dramatic as a romantic kiss or as impersonal as a peck on the cheek. I named it after one of those special kisses that a loved one gives you on your forehead that makes you smile and assures you that everything will be all right.

A cosmic kiss may not always be exactly in tune with your immediate goals or desires. It knows when to swoop down and disarm you just enough to get your attention. It can jolt, cajole, coax, bewilder and delight you. Its spiritual energy derives from a place personal to each of us; only we can decide where it flows from.

As it turned out, we were not really ready to seriously begin our house search as yet and the three homes mentioned above were not right for us anyway. Then, why did it all happen? Lately, I have been a bit too focused on where we would wind up and these little coincidences reminded me that there are lots of opportunities out there. This helped me to settle back down and keep to our original plan.

I’m always in search of the next cosmic kiss. How about you? Remember, if you walk through life with your head down, how will that special smooch know where to find you?

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

I Don’t Know Where I’m Going, But I’m On My Way

Photo Sense of Direction

OK, I admit it; I have no sense of direction. While others can logically navigate to and from their destinations, I am always left in a heightened state of panic suffering from topographical disorientation.

I guess that I was just born this way. Sure, from the outside I may seem confident. But, on the inside, some of my brain cells within their networks are miss-firing and not sending out the proper signals that help perform simple wayfinding skills. So, while you are confidently enjoying a walk or drive around new environs, I am either full of anxiety, trying to remember from which direction I came or making sure that I keep close to you, so that I am not lost forever.

I was the baby crawling in the opposite direction from the others at playtime and the reason that my grammar school made children on field trips wear bright red t-shirts. On the first day of junior high, I was sitting in the nurse’s office by fourth period, stressed to the point of stomach pains as I tried to maneuver to classes on three levels before the late bell rang.

To assist me in my daily commute to college in New York City, my Spanish grandmother tried teaching me about the subway system. Legend has it that, as a spirited young girl, she entered down the steps into the dark cavern of the city’s underbelly one day. After getting lost for six hours and without the command of the English language, she emerged unscathed with a working knowledge of the rapid transit system that would impress any conductor. Unfortunately, the knowledge she tried to impart on me was lost. Resigned to the fact that I never would learn the stops on the GG or the EE trains, she took to making the sign of the cross whenever I’d venture out alone.

When your 4-year old son tells you that you made the wrong turn to his play date’s home, it’s time for you to get your bearings. It would be 12 years before he would get his driver’s license, so I had no choice but to begin to keep a journal with directions written out to every location I could think of.

You would think that technology would have solved most of my problems. When Lola and I venture out alone, she does quite a good job of directing me. I have such an intimate relationship with our car’s navigation system that I’ve named her Lola. Together we head out on the open road, with her very authoritative voice instructing me (I swear that I can sense her annoyance when I miss a turn and she has to recalibrate the directions). It’s when Lola doesn’t speak to me that I get concerned. Though I should know by now that until there is a change in the route, she will not communicate, the silence always worries me. And, as I ask out loud why she is quiet and question whether I am still going the right way, I always feel that she is feeling quite smug, knowing just how much I depend on her.

I do have one thing in my favor. Luckily, my very underdeveloped sense of direction which relates to transporting me from place to place has not affected the other type of sense of direction that helps me to have a clear idea of what I want to achieve. Not wanting to always be the passenger and never the driver, I have to remember to just point myself in the right direction and follow my path.

 

 

 

Living in The Other White House and Other Childhood Memories

Photo White House

Until the age of ten, I was very proud to say that my first few years were spent living in the White House. I then realized that it was the other white house; a white brick apartment building in Washington Heights, a section of New York City. My parents and grandparents would reminisce about that time with such reverence. They both lived in the same building and now that I think back, the stories of their escapades were less presidential and more Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel.

Once when I was a baby, my dad was playing with me and pressed a toy attached to a suction cup onto his forehead, much to my delight, only to find that it would not come off. The more he pulled, the tighter the hold.

Of course, the whole family had to accompany him to the hospital emergency department. My grandmother thought quickly and outfitted her son with a turban-style headdress. As is typical of New Yorkers, no one gave a second glance to the protruding appendage or the stifled giggles of the accompanying group during the entire subway ride.

As not to alter his dapper image, my dad went to work each day feigning surprise when any of his customers commented about the perfect, brightly colored circle in the middle of his forehead, which changed to every color of the rainbow before finally departing for good.

My grandmother had perfected the return of merchandise to an art form. Send her to any type of store with any kind of merchandise and she would exit victorious. Many rumors existed as to just what went on between this diminutive woman with a Spanish accent and the sales staff, but since she worked alone, it was only speculation. Many surmised that it had to do with her dark piercing eyes, which sparkled when she was happy and burned a hole into you when she was not.

There is still talk of her many New York City reimbursement exploits: my sister’s dead frog to a pet shop, her friend’s used lipstick to Henri Bendel, my aunt’s ripped, two-year old dress to Lord & Taylor, another friend’s dining room table missing a leg to Macy’s, but the most famous was the bedding story.

Never mind that the sheets were not quite new, they were not her accepted level of quality, so back they went. When the patronizing saleslady at B. Altman & Company on Fifth Avenue did not understand her, my grandmother responded, in a rather loud voice, her version of the word “sheets” which came out “s***s”. This caused a stir at the chic establishment, causing both security and the store manager to intervene. The rest is history, as not only apologies ensued, but two sets of more expensive sheets, a store credit for the ones returned and lunch at their famous Charleston Garden Restaurant. My grandmother had her heart set on dining on the second-floor terrace. How the hostess patiently explained to her that it was really just trompe l’ oeil is another story in itself.

Life isn’t always an episode of “I Love Lucy”, but hiding in between all the seriousness, might just be some wonderful memories that will tickle you every time you let them. Hopefully inheriting some of that lighthearted spirit, my funny bone and I have made a pact to continue to remember not to forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Too Square to Think Outside the Box

Photo Think Outside Box

It was when I complimented JC* on her dress and she said she was wearing it backwards, that I was both aghast and quite sure that I had not inherited that playful gene that helps you look at the world just a bit differently.

Thinking outside the box is defined as “a thinking process which implements an unusual approach to the logical thinking structure and aims to approach it from a creative process.” It’s been the catchphrase behind many an advertising slogan, challenging us to think beyond the obvious.

Sure, there was the time that I accidently wore two different earrings to work, but I don’t think that counts. My co-workers did seem to be mesmerized with my ears, could not focus on our weekly meeting, and my boss asked if I was okay or if I needed to leave work early.

Wait a minute, wasn’t it me that made hot dog shaped hamburgers and served them in hot dog buns? Don’t I commemorate special events with a shaving cream message on the shower wall?

All well and good, but after some analysis, it seems that, though I may have been taking steps towards thinking outside the box, I was doing so inside the secure environs of my own home. To be truly avant-garde, you are not afraid to go out into the world and be who you are. Rats, so those don’t count either.

Being married to Mr. Wiz* for thirty three years, you’d think that some of his inventive and imaginative ways would have rubbed off on me by now. Proposing that we buy a derelict car dealership in the tourist town of Mountain View, Arkansas and turn it into a store or that we walk 500 miles through Spain on The Camino, literally left me speechless (not easy to do). Partners that we are, we negotiated, threw in a couple of Excel spreadsheets for my wellbeing and the rest is history.

Big A* just might have inherited the best of the both of us. Even though he wanted no part of Backwards Day in pre-school (even reversing the baseball cap on his head made no sense to him), he would come home from visiting his New York grandparents every summer, excited to share tales of having had pizza for breakfast, a backwards dinner (dessert first) and being asked if he would rather go to an amusement park or see Tito Puente perform live at Carnegie Hall (he chose the latter).

There always seemed to be electricity in the air when we’d spend time with our dear friends, Pat and Bruce; you never knew what to expect next. An older couple, who took us under their wing when we started our sales representative business in New York years ago, their wealthy upbringing afforded them the luxury of an unconventional lifestyle. For their forty-fifth wedding anniversary, Bruce, a self-professed pack rat, had a dumpster delivered to their home with much fanfare and the promise to fill it up. Pat said it was the most loving gift she had ever received.

Sure, I’m disappointed that I’m just not built to be such a carefree soul, but maybe in the big cardboard compartments of life, there needs to be a balance between those that take risks and get the papercuts and those that are always prepared with the bandages.

I’ll just have to be content with my analytical self and accept that there’s always the chance that I will be inspired to release some of my inner eccentricities by watching others make the world a bit quirkier, one kooky notion at a time.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.