“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

T.S. Eliot

After a nice Christmas and New Year’s Day, by ten a.m. on January 2, I was at the veterinarian’s office saying goodbye to my 17-year-old cat, Molly. Diagnosed with osteosarcoma in August and mostly stable, her final weeks, while treasured, were helped along by painkillers, and balanced an increasingly volatile situation as her tumor spread along her cheekbone and toward her ears, mouth and eyes. Thursday was the day. I would never have been ready to let her go, but it was clearly not a moment too soon. I was grateful that it didn’t appear to be delayed into constant pain, either. Cosmic timing in many ways. As we say, 17 great years and one bad morning.

My acute grief and forever love for Molly is its own thing and needs its own post when I am better equipped to write it. But today Molly’s journey and the changing of the years made me think of the T.S. Eliot quote written above. Every end a beginning. How hopeful that is!

For me, new beginnings mean things like taking time to set healthier habits now that I am no longer needing to care for Molly in such consuming ways. I miss my old routine so much, even the dreaded eye drops that I know Molly doesn’t miss at all. My heart breaks a little when I wake up in the morning and she’s not crunching from the pile of treats my husband gave her before his shower (we were definitely in cat spoiling mode!), or running to me for her morning brushes. While I never want to lose those memories, I am trying to make a new routine by reading from a book between the time I wake up until James leaves for work and beginning my own work day, filling my “Molly time” with something relaxing vs. opening my laptop or clicking around aimlessly online, or thinking about what I have lost. Every end a beginning.

My husband has his own changes to make and goals he wants to reach now that his routine is different. He had “night duty” with Molly because he naturally stays up later, but that often meant a few extra chores before he could relax and sleep. He’s working to channel that found rest and energy into his physical health.

Our theory is that things are different anyway. Everything from our routines to the way our house looks and sounds. (Who knew the absence of a tiny cat and her thousand toys could cause a house to echo?) Why not guide those changes for good, to the extent we can? Every end a beginning.

One day, we will be ready to open our hearts to a new kitty or two, and by that time it can make its own, beloved, precious place in our lives, not simply fill the Molly-shaped hole that is so deep now. Every end a beginning.

We can’t control much about the endings in our lives, but we can control where and how we start from. That’s the lesson that I take from this sad start to a new year that still has a lot of potential and joy to be discovered.

In August, on the day that Molly was diagnosed, I sat on the couch and carved a rubber block while she rested in her carrier and slept off her X-Ray tranquilizer. The repetitive motion of the carving helped keep my hands busy while my mind was moving in a lot of new and confusing directions. It was a fun little piece then, and now, I love it not only because it features my favorite subject, but because it reminds me of the beginning of this journey, of Molly’s victory lap. How rich and rewarding and challenging the months in between have been, and how at the end of it, Molly still shines and so do we.

Every end a beginning. Every darkness an opportunity for light. MollyPop, my “Muse who Mews,” inspiring me even now.

“MollyPop” print, Stephanie Khattak.

Year in Art 2019

This year, I was lucky enough to travel all around the country seeing interesting and beautiful art…and call it work! Before I leave 2019 behind, I wanted to share my favorite art discoveries of the year, in no particular order.

Textile Art by Jeffrey Gibson at the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Photo: James Khattak.

Jeffrey Gibson : I know I said “no particular order,” but finding this artist easily tops my art discoveries of 2019. I first saw his work at the Whitney Biennial, and then was able to see his “This is the Day” exhibition in Austin. Gibson’s work is just gorgeous, and he incorporates his Native American heritage into every piece in a way that is both interesting and clear while also making you think.

Tomashi Jackson : I saw Jackson’s work at the Whitney Biennial as well, and have been (im)patiently waiting to see more of it ever since. Her work is very interesting, with a lot of thought, depth and skill layered into the pieces. Viewing the Whitney pieces was like looking into a scrapbook – so much story and narrative.

Lincoln Gallery : Smithsonian American Art Museum | Washington, DC : This wasn’t my first visit to this museum, but I hadn’t seen this gallery before. It was definitely a “Where have you been all my life?” moment. From new/digital media pieces by Jenny Holzer and Naim June Paik to vibrant Mickalene Thomas and Kerry James Marshall paintings and a large installation by David Hockney, it really represented the best of America’s best.

Jeff Koons “Split-Rocker” at Glenstone. Photo: James Khattak.

Glenstone | Potomac, MD : This experience felt very exclusive, but is completely accessible. Free to the public but involving a bit of transportation finagling, Glenstone’s grounds and art pavilions feel almost otherworldly, especially when some of the first things you experience are Jeff Koons’ “Split-Rocker” rising to greet you from a distant pasture, and “Forest (for a thousand years…)” a sound installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, booming through the trees at regular intervals.

“Dior: From Paris to the World” at the DMA. Photo: James Khattak.

Dior: From Paris to the World” , Dallas Museum of Art | Dallas, TX: The exhibit itself was great, but what really shone was the exhibition design. It was so well done, and really made me think about how presentation does or doesn’t work in other exhibits. It’s easy to assume that art speaks for itself, and it mostly does, but when exhibition planners go that extra mile, it has a huge impact on visitor experience.

Blanton Museum of Art | Austin: The Blanton has been in the spotlight in recent years for its permanent Ellsworth Kelly “Austin” installation piece. But if you only see that piece, you’re truly missing out. The Blanton has had some of my favorite traveling exhibitions (Jeffrey Gibson’s “This is the Day” and 2018’s “Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design”) and its permanent collection is really fantastic. The museum is large, and contains works by Yayoi Kusama, a comprehensive selection of Latin American art, and a very cool portrait of Madame C.J. Walker, made of hair combs, by Sonya Clark.

Houston Art Scene : Houston is close to Dallas, and even closer to my hometown. But it was still a pleasant surprise to visit for a weekend and see so much going on in its art communities. We went for the Van Gogh exhibition at the MFAH, and while we were there, we were able to experience James Turrell’s “Twilight Epiphany” Skyspace on the Rice University campus, the MFAH sculpture garden and Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Column,” and there are so many things that we didn’t have time for, that we must go back and see.

Valley House Gallery & Sculpture Garden | Dallas : This gallery is a few miles from our house, an oasis in the middle of North Dallas. We were first introduced to it at this year’s Dallas Art Fair, and visited shortly after. Its staff is friendly, and its exhibitions are interesting and diverse, with many pieces made using techniques I hadn’t seen before, and inspiring my own artistic process. And one of the best things about it is the sculpture garden and pond behind the owner’s residence. (The garden isn’t always open – look for a sign, or simply ask.)

Amon Carter Museum of American Art | Fort Worth: A long-time favorite of ours, the Amon Carter got a refresh this year and it is even better than ever! The upgrade better-highlights the Carter’s contemporary art collection, and gives polish and deeper context to some of its pieces around the American West. When we went, its main exhibition was of Gordon Parks photos, which in itself was a 2019 highlight because of the talent, subject matter, and Parks’ groundbreaking position as a successful black photojournalist in and around the Civil Rights Era. Its Gabriel Dawe and Justin Favela installations are also crowd pleasers.

“Slumgullion (The Venerate Outpost)” by Karl Unnasch at Philbrook Museum of Art. Photo: James Khattak.

“Slumgullion (The Venerate Outpost)” by Karl Unnasch, Philbrook Museum of Art | Tulsa, OK : Made entirely from reclaimed materials, including colored glass objects and lamps, t-shirts and the skeleton of a late-1800s pioneer home, Slumgullion is a log cabin installation at the back of Phibrook’s fairy tale gardens, which makes it seem even more magical. Philbrook is doing all kinds of interesting and innovative things lately. Can’t wait to see what it brings in 2020! (And if its’ Instagram hinting is any indication, we are in for something – maybe thirty somethings – very cool!)

Believe it or not, this is not all of the amazing art I saw in 2019! I actually did narrow it down a lot, which wasn’t easy.

If you see something interesting in this list, I hope you will bookmark it, research further, and let it inspire your own artwork, art travels or creative thinking!

Sabbatical Year

When the word sabbatical started to creep into my thoughts, I didn’t realize it was related to the number seven, and also to the sabbath, but it makes perfect sense now. It’s right there in the name.

The number seven isn’t significant to me at this time, but the idea of a sabbatical, a rest, is calling me. But, like many other people, I can’t take a real sabbatical. I am self-employed, so I need to work (plus, I enjoy my work and would miss it!) and I have other obligations that I must consider as well.

I have a friend who is a big proponent of “think trips,” the idea of taking some time to oneself, usually annually, to reflect, rest and plan. I have done a few “think weekends,” adapted to my own schedule, budget and other priorities, and have found them quite helpful.

With that in mind, I wondered if a “sabbatical lite” might not be helpful as well? Just for a year, 2020-2021, and nothing too restrictive or intense. What would it look like? How might I integrate it into my day-to-day responsibilities, prioritized in a way that is effective and lasting?

It would look different for everyone, but for me, it means identifying three non-negotiable pieces to keep (growing professionally, being a good partner to my husband and generally, being a good friend, family member and citizen.) I also chose three goals to focus on (creative work, entrepreneurship and mental health.)

How to balance those responsibilities and goals? What does success look like? What are the best steps to take? I don’t have those answers right now. I suppose that’s where the sabbatical comes in!

So, we will see!

I do feel that for me, personally the answers will be come clearer and my stress points will get stronger through creative exploration, reading and travel/new experiences. Saying “no, thank you” more often and setting firmer boundaries on my time and other external expectations.

You may notice that my newsletter sign-up has disappeared, along with my newsletter itself. That is part of this journey. I needed to look at where my time was going, and eliminate things that felt redundant. So, I may bring back the newsletter at some point, but here’s where I’ll be writing and posting art for the foreseeable future.

I’m also closing up my personal Etsy shop for the year, with the possible exception of some temporary “drops.” (You can “Favorite” my shop on Etsy to keep informed.) I’ll also take on the occasional custom request. I feel pulled in new and different directions of making art, and this sabbatical is, in part, time to explore that.

A few months ago, when I was researching for the next iteration of my business, a peer said to me “I felt I had a blank slate.” Their circumstances are different from mine, but we are both women in our forties who had to leave corporate America for a bit and had trouble getting back in. She now has a fun, successful and interesting professional life that she would never have predicted. I realized then, that I also have a blank slate and that maybe it’s a gift.

So, I’ll be processing a lot through writing, here. Weekly, semi-monthly, I’m not sure yet what it looks like. But I suspect a lot of people, particularly people like me who really can’t pack it all in and move to Iceland for a year on a “real” sabbatical would be helped by, and interested in the journey. Maybe you also have a blank slate or at least an opportunity to evolve, an maybe it can be fun.

“And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Year in Reading 2019

I read a lot, sometimes a book a week if I have the time and energy. Here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order:

Catch and Kill. Ronan Farrow. Fast-paced and deep look into investigations of the #MeToo movement and its impact on the author.

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. Jia Tolentino. These essays analyze modern and internet culture and how it has changed society, how we find and define our place in it, and how we view ourselves in these new and changing contexts.

Lot: Stories. Bryan Washington. I really loved these interconnected vignettes that formed a narrative around the life of a Houston boy and his family as he grew to adulthood and the neighborhood evolved around him.

American Predator. Maureen Callahan. This book was really scary. I read a lot of true crime, and this one was the first in a long time that truly unsettled me.

Working. Robert Caro. I’m late to Robert Caro, but after reading this I immediately reserved two of his other books through my library system. His writes clearly, but beautifully and humanizes his subjects without pulling punches.

Henri Nouwen. Discernment. I NEEDED to read this book when I read it. Truly life-changing for me. I downloaded some of his other books, and they were good, but I truly found this one at the right time. (Or perhaps it found me, if you are into that sort of thing.)

Calypso. David Sedaris. The best of the best at his best. Sedaris takes universal challenges (aging ourselves, caring for aging parents) and makes them both poignant and hilarious.

Heart of the Sea : The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Nathaniel Philbrick. I read this as I was missing and reminiscing on The Terror: Season One, and had already read the book on which that show had been based. I was looking for a true seafaring adventure and this did not disappoint. It was heartbreaking at times, and the descriptions of historic Nantucket as a place bound so tightly to the whaling industry were interesting as well.

Wave. Sonali Deraniyagala. Heartbreaking and beautifully written, this first-person account of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lank is told by a woman who lost her husband, two children and parents to the wave. It is a short book, spare in language but not without depth, emotion and even beauty.

Book of Night Women. Marlon James. This author has had a few big publications since this book was published in 2010, but this one is no less strong than his more recent works. It tells the story of a gifted young woman in Jamaica coming of age at the time of a slave revolt on the sugar plantation where she lives. It is hard to read in some parts, but also hard to look away from because the story is so compelling, and James’s gifted prose gives each scene the importance and gravity it rightfully deserves.

Bird Tree

When I was growing up, our church hosted First Friday potluck dinners. They were a chance for all of us from the satellite communities around our town to come together outside of Sunday services, and they often went late or included an activity for us kids afterward. For at least a few Decembers, that activity was a Bird Tree, balls of peanut butter, bird seed, sunflower seeds or other treats that a bird would like, plus soft yarn for nests and other things. We took our work very seriously, and hung each finished ornament with great care before devolving into slap fights and wrestling as was per usual. We weren’t a church that volunteered in soup kitchens or anything like that, but we were a country church that loved and served our community, even its feathered members. (And probably a few furry ones that enjoyed a spot of birdseed now and then.)

December is marketed as a time of joy, and of course it is. The birth of Jesus! The season of light!

To quote Lucy Van Pelt in A Charlie Brown Christmas: “You know, deck them halls and all that stuff?…You know, Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho, and mistletoe and presents to pretty girls.”

At the same time, it is a dark season for many people, including me. There’s a bittersweet feeling that comes each December. A coming to terms with the year that was and the present that is. A sense of an ending.

But I think that is normal.

After all, it is an ending. And if there wasn’t an understood, collective darkness, then we would not have so many songs, verses and stories about bringing light. The new year itself is a promise of light. The manger story is one of darkness and light. The two coexist at this time of year in almost every cultural touchstone that define it.

We are wired for the mixed emotions that many of us feel as we drink cocoa, sing carols and also miss our loved ones or feel apprehensive about the year ahead.

So, what’s the solution, then? I think the solution, as with many things, is to accept it. Lean into it and feel your complicated feelings. Know you’re not alone.

Look around you and see who you can serve, where you are and with what you have. Make a bird tree. Watch them flock to enjoy it, and then let them fly away.