March 2012

This vignette of a ballet sequence in slow motion is not only beautiful to watch, it shows the discipline behind every motion of professional dancers like these two. Wow. Thanks to Margaret for bringing it to my attention.

It’s been some kind of week around here! This slow mama needs a slow weekend, and she’s not going to get one. Boo. I do hope, however, to carve out a little time to get outside and enjoy the tree blossoms, read my new issue of Saveur, and catch up with B. If you’ve got some time to breathe this weekend, you may enjoy checking out some neat things spotted over the past few days:

Have a slow weekend, and I’ll see you back here on Monday!

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In Praise of Vinegar

March 29, 2012

by Margaret Cabaniss

Is there anything vinegar can’t do? Seriously, I would like to know, because lately it feels like I’ve been seeing it everywhere as the solution to clean food, fluffy laundry, and radiant skin. I will not be surprised if it turns out I can run my car on it.

Just the other day I read that vinegar and water make an excellent fruit wash — better than plain water, and even better than the pricey sprays they try to sell you at the store. For someone worried about salmonella in her eggs, I’m pretty lackadaisical when it comes to washing produce (what, rubbing an apple on my shirt tail isn’t good enough?) — which, according to the experts, isn’t such a great idea. And as I can never remember the chart about which fruits and veggies tend to be more pesticide-heavy, I’m thinking I should go with the experts and just wash everything.

Fortunately, the solution is simple: Mix three parts water with one part vinegar and put it in a spray bottle; douse your produce with the vinegar solution, then rinse it with tap water and use like normal. For greens and craggier produce like broccoli, let them soak in a bowl of the stuff for a couple minutes, then rinse. I just dropped mine in the salad spinner (though you might have to do it in a couple of batches):

I love the idea of natural cleaners in theory — and homemade is even better — but only if they actually work. I often tend to be skeptical about home remedies at first; I always want to see the science behind them. So I have to confess, when Ann described making her own all-purpose cleaner from a combination of water, castile soap, and vinegar, I thought it would be nice for cleaning up day-to-day spills, but I assumed she’d need something stronger for heavy-duty disinfecting.

Turns out I was wrong: Vinegar isn’t just an old-timey home remedy but an honest-to-goodness antibacterial. According to Cook’s Illustrated, which tested several cleaners next to each other and then had a lab process the results, straight vinegar is as effective at killing bacteria as the heavy-duty chemical sprays you can buy at the store. (The only reason they didn’t wholeheartedly recommend it for cleaning everything in your home was that overwhelming vinegar-y smell, and some slight streakiness; but their winner — Method’s All-Purpose Natural Surface Cleaner — is naturally derived, works well, and smells good, if you were curious.)

That clinched it for me. Between all the windows, floors, counters, mirrors, showers, and more that you could tackle with this stuff, you could replace half the cleaning solutions in your cabinet.

I don’t know why none of this occurred to me sooner, as I’ve been using vinegar in laundry for a while. A half cup of white vinegar in the load, along with your usual detergent, helps kill odor-causing bacteria and leaves no vinegar smell after (making it particularly useful for loads of, say, cloth diapers); it also helps the wash rinse cleaner, so your linens come out softer and fluffier.

People swear by it for beauty applications, too: Rebecca of The Daily Muse recommends raw cider vinegar as a facial toner, and I still remember my mom washing my hair with vinegar when I was a kid — I assume for the aforementioned soap-rinsing properties (though it seemed a high price to pay for the smell). Others say it’s good for warts, sunburn, upset stomach, mosquito bites…

…I know, it totally sounds like snake oil to me, too. Clearly I need to do some more research. But that cleaning stuff is legit, and I’m curious to try out some of these other ideas. What do you use vinegar for around the home? Tell me your secrets!

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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Mom & Baby, in New York magazine 4-4-10

A couple Fridays ago, I posted a link to an article in Time by Nancy Gibbs called “The Growing Backlash against Overparenting.” I couldn’t help but notice that Gibbs uses the term “slow parenting” to describe the antidote to “helicopter parenting” — the tendency to over-involvement, over-protection, and over-investment in our kids.

A slow approach to parenting hardly means one is disengaged, laissez faire, or unconcerned, of course, but it seems that more and more people are waking up to a need for common sense, getting back to basics, prioritizing relationships, and letting go of unrealistic expectations.

Not surprisingly, Carl Honore’s book Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting is leading the conversation about slow parenting. (I haven’t read it yet, but when I do I’ll be sure to tell you what I think.) Honore’s best-seller, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, remains the leading book on the slow movement and why it’s revelatory for our times.

One of the interesting things Gibbs mentions in her Time article is how the recession has helped parents to step back and reassess their priorities. So many have been forced to scale back on extracurricular activities for their kids and the usual amount of toys; they’ve had to do less, downsize, and simplify. And according to Gibbs, a CBS poll showed that most parents actually like the results — they’re happier and believe their family life is better.

I can’t say I’m surprised.

If there’s a problem in parenting today, perhaps it’s the pressure so many parents feel to be perfect and to find the right formula. But there is no perfect formula for parenting, only principles that can help guide the way. And the application of those principles will look different from family to family, because every kid and adult and situation is different.

Do you agree? And do you think it’s possible to relax and really enjoy parenting, or is it something that’s simply bound to be full of angst and pressure?

Image: Jessica Todd Harper for New York Magazine

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 by Ann Waterman

For me, going green is about making small changes that are realistic and doable. I don’t ever expect to eliminate my carbon footprint, but I’m constantly keeping my eye out for small things I can do to decrease it just a little. One of those things was switching from a plastic shower liner to a cloth one.

In my house, the life span of a plastic shower liner — not the shower curtain, which is just for show, but the interior liner that keeps water from flooding the floor — was about 6 months. When it got too funky from mildew and soap scum, I’d extend its life by tossing it in the wash. But eventually, the plastic would tear from wear in the machine and I’d need another one. It occurred to me one day that this was just wasteful — both in terms of the environment and the money — and that’s when I started looking into cloth shower liners that I could wash and reuse indefinitely.

Another big reason I wanted to ditch the plastic shower liner was for health reasons. Many liners are made from polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which contains many harmful chemicals like  phthalates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). You know that new plastic shower liner (or curtain) smell when you put up a new one? Well, that’s the off-gassing of the toxic chemicals you’re smelling, and while I’ll admit to finding that smell a wee bit appealing — along with glue, gasoline, and markers <hangs head low> — I know it’s not good for me. These chemicals may contribute to health issues like nausea, headaches, respiratory problems, and reproductive irregularities due to endocrine disruption — and that’s just to name a few.

With many of the reusable products I’ve switched to — like cloth napkins, cloth cleaning rags, and cloth diapers (both swim and regular ones) — I find them to be superior to their disposable counterparts, and I wonder why people ever switched to disposable products in the first place, or made their use the rule rather than the exception. The same proved to be true of my fabric shower liner: It’s wonderful, and I’m never going back to plastic. For one thing, it’s a little bit luxurious — I feel like I’m showering in a upscale hotel. I can also clean it whenever and as often as I like. (I don’t know about you, but one of my pet peeves was brushing up against against a dirty shower liner while I was lathering up.) I take mine down once a week and toss it in the wash with a little bleach to keep any mold away. I also keep a second fabric liner on hand to put up while the other is in the wash. Most of all, I love that I don’t have to shell out money every 6 months for a new one, and it won’t make me or my family sick — it’s a win-win all around.

What’s one small green thing that you do?

Image: Ann Waterman

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Agnes Blum Wreath

I’m featuring another artist mom this month: the lovely Agnes Blum. Agnes is a mixed-media and textile artist in Austin, Texas; a wife to Justin; and a mama to four-year-old Abby-Sue and one-year-old Robert. She runs the arts and crafts blog knock-knocking, where she features her work and writes about loving life in Austin.

Zoe Saint-Paul: You’re a textile artist. What made you choose textiles as your medium, and what in particular do you love to create?  

Agnes Blum: I’ve been an active artist since I was very young and have both learned and taught my love of art for years. I’ve explored different mediums and challenged myself with various techniques, but I found my niche working with fabrics and paints. Although I’m not limited to creating them, yarn wreaths inspired by the colors and shapes found in nature are my passion. It’s been exiting and rewarding for me to see how well my little idea has taken off since that first day so long ago when I decided to create the first one.

A peek at your etsy shop, your blog, or even inside your home shows how much you love color. What colors inspire you, and what do you think they bring to your work or home space?  

The colors I love change all the time. Different ones inspire me depending on my mood — and my moods are, in turn, changed by color; I’m in a constant flux. Right now I’m in love with pairing up Southwestern-inspired tones: burnt sienna, rich oranges, pops of red and turquoise.

Agnes Blum

You’re an artist, entrepreneur, and mom. How do you find time for it all?  

It’s certainly been a challenge, but I think the saying holds true that if you really love something, you find time for it. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse. Since creating art is a wonderful, relaxing experience for me, it has been easier to have it in my day because it builds me up. I’ve had to work with the schedule of my family, but some of my best moments are the ones after the children are in bed and it’s just me, my color wheel, and a glass of tea in my little studio.

Take us on a brief tour of your typical day.  

It’s hitting the floor at seven, sharing a few moments with my husband before work, and then feeding the children. My oldest daughter goes to preschool so I send her off with a kiss; and then my little buddy Robert and I mail boxes, organize supplies, or hunt for vintage pieces to feature in my wreaths. After he goes down for his nap or is working with his physical therapist, I typically answer emails and phone calls, do any photography work that needs to be shot with the mid-day sunlight, and work with the shop owners or galleries who carry my art. I often sketch and brainstorm new work during this time as well. After lunch, errands, and cleaning the house, I usually have a quiet time for the children which allows me to wrap the bulk of my wreath forms. I don’t get a chance to work again until after the children are in bed, and that is typically when I do my felt sculpting, cake toppers, and custom work.

How do you stay organized?  

It’s a work in progress. I try to streamline or organize one new thing a day to make sure that my system is as quick and efficient as possible.  My studio is in a spacious walk-in closet that I have carefully organized by color and with the work flow of each piece in mind. I added a little wooden baby gate across the doorway so that the children can play and interact with me but aren’t into every little button, bead, or tube of paint. It has worked out well.

Agnes Blum Studio

What did motherhood bring to your life, and how did it change you? 

I think the largest change in my life with becoming a mother was understanding how important a mission it is to share beauty with your children. You only have so much time with them before they’re grown, and I think it’s essential to make sure every day is filled with beautiful, simple moments.

Slow living is about things like simplicity, beauty, staying connected, and not rushing through life all the time. How do you incorporate these ideals into your life?  

For us, it’s all about living simply in the day-to-day activities in our home. I make sure my house is organized and clutter-free, and I’m always sharing donations with our local vintage or thrift shop — or looking for home goods there myself. It’s an important part of recycling and living as green a life as possible. I use wood, tin, or cotton whenever I can exchange them for plastic, and I try to keep in mind Mother Teresa’s quote: “Live simply so others may simply live.”

What is your best tip for living well? 

Don’t bring something into your home you don’t absolutely love. Don’t settle for whatever you can find off the shelf without putting a little effort into researching what it is that you really enjoy. I guarantee that you will love looking at a special piece of art that you researched and carefully selected over whatever was available at the local box store.

What drives you, and what relaxes you?  

I am driven by a love of color and the desire to share that passion with others. Everyone deserves to have something beautiful and special in their homes. Sometimes I have a color combination so stuck in my head that no other shade will do, and I can’t rest until I’ve moved the idea out of my mind and onto canvas, or yarn, or whatever the medium might be. I relax by studying a new technique, painting, or decorating my home.

What is your greatest challenge?  

Certainly it would be balancing being a mother, wife, and business owner. There is only so much Agnes to go around, so I have to remind myself that, although anyone can work a business, only I can mother my children.

If nothing were an obstacle, where would you live, what would you be doing, and who would you be with? 

I would certainly be living right here in Austin, Texas — maybe a little closer to the lake, and I would have more wood in my home. But I’m very blessed and happy right where I am, surrounded by amazing artists and friends in this city and enjoying all of its artistic sides, from music to visual arts.

Your guilty pleasure is…  

Hot yoga and Essie fingernail polish.

Another aspect of slow living is an appreciation for craftmanship. What handmade item of yours do you most treasure? 

This is a tough one. It’s a three-way tie between the oak crib that Justin’s grandfather created, my little vintage-style banjo, and the spectacular wooden animal chair that my dear friend Caroline and her team crafted for me at Paloma’s Nest.

You have a free Sunday afternoon — how do you spend it? 

With my family, downtown. Walking by the lake, enjoying ice cream on South Congress, and listening to a live band on the corner.

What do you love best about your life right now? 

I love everything about my life right now. The friends and family I have and the amazing opportunity I have to be an artist in such a beautiful city. It’s all good.

******

Thank you, Agnes, for giving us a window into your colorful, artistic life! Just looking at your wreaths make me feel a little more exuberant.

Folks, be sure to check out more of Agnes’s life and work at knock-knocking!

Note: This is the third installment in my series called “Living Slower With…” where  I ask interesting women how they live well in a fast-paced world and how they juggle their many priorities. 

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Coconut Muffins

I made these Double Coconut Muffins the other day — a recipe I spotted on Smitten Kitchen. They’re both yummy and healthy — the best kind of muffin in my book — using only 3/4 cup of white flour and the rest whole wheat (I used sprouted whole wheat). The only fat called for is coconut oil, and the sugar is minimal. What I love about the recipe is how adaptable it is… you can jazz it up with some lime zest, or add pieces of pineapple or mashed banana. Chocolate chips would be great. And you could probably make these with a gluten-free flour and substitute some honey for the sugar, if you wanted. One thing I may do next time is add chia seeds, poppy seeds, hemp seeds, or chopped nuts.

Consider doubling the recipe if you decide to try them. My batch made 10 medium-sized muffins, but if I had more than two mouths to feed, I would have needed at least 10 more.

What are you up to this weekend? I’ve got a lot of work on my plate, though I hope to get out with B tomorrow evening for a little R&R. Here are some items I found interesting this week that I thought you might enjoy:

  • Living smarter in our homes: less is more.
  • A project to help Rwandan women rebuild their lives.
  • Jim Lahey’s new cookbook — featuring no-knead pizza dough!
  • Funny: How wives should undress in front of their husbands…circa 1937.
  • One mom’s reflections on handling prejudice.
  • Green-friendly party shoes! (I’m digging almost all of these.)

Have a slow weekend, and I’ll see you back here on Monday!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

 

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In the Garden

March 22, 2012

by Margaret Cabaniss

The extent of my gardening to date has mostly consisted of small container gardens — some herbs, a few tomato plants…about all I could fit on the back patio of a Baltimore city row home. But I hesitate to call that “gardening,” when you compare it with what my sister and her husband have going on in their backyard…

I’ve mentioned before that Amy lives out in farm country, and her family is taking full advantage of all the space they have there. They built up their garden over the course of three years, until the point last year when they had six 5’x20′ beds (plus an herb bed) that produced a staggering amount of vegetables, all fed by a rain-barrel irrigation system Joe had rigged up. It was really pretty impressive.

So naturally, the only thing left to do this year was to double the size of the entire operation.

Somehow, the garden expansion was planned for right around the time when Amy had her baby; and so, a couple of days after Stephen came home from the hospital last fall, this happened:

After beds were dug, fences were moved, and cover crops were planted, there wasn’t much else to do but wait through the winter…but now, the new work for spring has begun in earnest.

First was planting the early seedlings a couple of weeks ago, under the grow lights they got as a Christmas present:

Then turning all the beds under to prepare for planting:

The grass protects the soil through the winter and serves as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer in the spring once it’s turned under — along with a load of leaf compost that will be added for good measure. Joe had a small amount delivered to the house last week:

Old grape vines were cleared out to make way for new raspberry canes:

And there was lots of measuring (and remeasuring) to figure out where all these crops were going to go:

Of course, the previous irrigation system (comprising two 55-gallon barrels) wasn’t going to cut it for the new expansion, so that had to be upgraded as well. Those rain barrels will now feed into this 550-gallon tank, which will in turn water the garden. Here it is with a (tall) four-year-old standing next to it, to give you a sense of scale:

Yeah, this garden is going to be a monster.

As insane as it may have seemed at first, though, watching the whole thing take shape has been pretty exciting. My nephews are becoming quite the little farmers, and Amy and Joe are looking forward to feeding their growing family (and the neighborhood) with the fruits of their labor. I hang around to document the whole process — and to eat. Though I have promised to do plenty of the cooking and canning in return…

Have you started plans for a garden this year? Will yours require a backhoe, or will it be more of a potted affair? Whatever you have in mind, I recommend checking out Smart Gardener for some guidance: The website helps you create a personalized growing plan (for containers or beds), figure out what to plant and when, builds you a customized to-do list and tracking journal…it looks seriously handy. Alas, we didn’t discover it in time to help Amy with the layout of her garden, but there’s always next year…

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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Plane Gear

March 21, 2012

Spain Travel

When I travel, I like to be comfortable, but also a little stylish. I need sturdy shoes (so I can run off a plane in case of emergency — hi, have I mentioned I’m a paranoid flyer?), but I like a bit of a heel. Neutral colors are best: I prefer things understated, plus then I can mix all the pieces with the rest of what I’ve packed. I also like layers because I tend to run cold.

The above ensemble is almost identical to what I wore on the plane to Spain: dark gray Adriano Goldschmied (AG) cords — the most comfortable pants in existence — a basic white tee under a dark navy ribbed cotton sweater, all topped with a light gray cashmere cardigan (this one, which I’ve worn practically every day since November; it was a gift from a friend).

You may recall that I was hunting for the right shoes for my trip, and I eventually settled on these short boots from Clarks. I now call them my 8-hour shoes: They’re fabulous for about that long, and then suddenly you feel like your feet are going to fall off. But maybe that would be true of any shoe you walk in for miles down winding cobblestone streets… Anyway, they did the job: They worked with everything I had and were the only pair of shoes I brought for the week, aside from the pair I wore to the wedding, which ended up being these Seychelles (a brand I highly recommend, since they’re well-made and incredibly comfortable).

I topped everything off with a blue scarf my new sister-in-law brought me from Spain a while back. I’m a big fan of scarves because they can dress up any outfit, be worn any number of ways, and help keep you warm.

Do you have a favorite travel outfit? Do you prefer to fly in sneakers and sweat pants or heels and skirts?

Image from a set I put together at Polyvore

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Barren Tree

Ever since the rise of blogs and online news sites, regular discussions have ensued about the quality (and lack thereof) of conversations in comment boxes. A recent article on CNN Tech raised the issue yet again:

In the early days of the Internet, there was hope that the unprecedented tool for global communication would lead to thoughtful sharing and discussion on its most popular sites.

A decade and a half later, the very idea is laughable, says Gawker Media founder Nick Denton.

“It didn’t happen,” said Denton, whose properties include the blogs Gawker, Jezebel, Gizmodo, io9 and Lifehacker. “It’s a promise that has so not happened that people don’t even have that ambition anymore.

“The idea of capturing the intelligence of the readership — that’s a joke.”

Having been a blogger on larger websites in the past, and knowing people who run blogs with high readership, I would say this seems largely true. It’s like the computer screen gives people permission to spew all the knee-jerk, mean-spirited things and uninformed opinions they’d never normally share aloud. Virtual anonymity can bring out the worst in people. (I touched on this recently when I wrote about civility.)

The exception to this may be some of the popular women’s lifestyle blogs flourishing today. Take the Pioneer Woman, for instance. Ree Drummond gets tens of thousands of comments under her more popular posts, and rarely have I read anything harsh or rude. Maybe she’s got a combox manager — and she probably should, because she’s now famous enough to have critics. Still, it seems to me that the majority of her readers are just plain nice.

Likewise with Design Mom, a popular design/motherhood blog run by Gabrielle Blair. Never have I read anything unkind in her comment pages. Again, maybe these remarks are weeded out, but she seems to have a lot of lovely people hanging out there.

Undoubtedly, the more controversial the blog or topic, the more the comments reflect that — and vice versa. Both Design Mom and the Pioneer Woman keep things positive and light, treading carefully around issues that raise hackles. They are pleasant places to be, and that’s refreshing in a world of screaming pundits and negative news.

This also got me thinking about blog comments in general, and what makes people comment at all. Anger does, of course. But what accounts for the thousands of people who simply write things like, “You’re the best, Ree!” on PW? Clearly, readers feel connected to her and make her site a regular stop. They’re invested in her life and entertained by her writing. The same goes for Design Mom and a host of other blogs.

Newer blogs like this one don’t see a lot of comments — not yet, anyway. We’re still just a new kid on the block — in fact, our first year anniversary is right around the corner. With so many sites out there, gaining a reader’s time and loyalty is a privilege, really. I know that when you jump in with comments, you make me and my contributors even happier, since comments add energy to the site and contribute to the conversation, which is part of what a blog is for in the first place.

So I’m curious: Do you comment on a lot of blogs, and do you visit the same ones? What moves you to comment on a blog, and what makes you hold back?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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StreetArtMadrid

I credit my Aunt Ann with instilling in me an appreciation for art.

Growing up, my parents weren’t museum-goers, and the fine arts weren’t a big part of my schooling. But every year during summer vacation, we’d make the trek to New England to visit my father’s family, where his two unmarried sisters always seemed to be up to something interesting — and no doubt thought the country kids from Canada could use a little culture.

AuntAnn

Ann would invite us into her very clean car — with firm instructions of where to place (and keep) our feet — and we’d drive into Boston to visit, among other sites, the Museum of Fine Arts. Long stints didn’t work so well with four young children, but she was a trooper. I remember preferring the Ancient Egyptian mummies to strange modern sculptures, but there was something special about walking through those hushed rooms, watching others gaze intently at this or that painting, and noting what I myself liked or didn’t like.

MadridArt

Our museum visits would be followed by a ride on the swan boats in the Public Gardens or a fast elevator ride up the John Hancock building to the observation deck. Then Ann would take us out to eat — maybe to Faneuil Hall at Quincy Market, where our eyes would bulge and our mouths would water at the fantastic variety of food before us.

These experiences helped open up another world for me and my siblings. Certainly, our friends back home didn’t return from their summer vacations with such memories, and most of them didn’t have an aunt who, on her many world travels, would pick up little souvenirs and send them along with notes about where she’d been and what she’d seen.

At the time, of course, we didn’t know how all this was forming us, but now I look back and realize that these regular doses of art and culture instilled a lifelong appreciation for them. I was reminded of this recently in Spain: At the top of my must-see list in Madrid was a special exhibit of Marc Chagall at the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum.

ChagallPainting

Chagall is one of my favorite artists, and I couldn’t have been more excited about catching some of his work. Turns out my sister Clara is also a big fan, and she made it a priority to see the exhibit when she came through Madrid the following week.

ChagallPainting2

I took photos of the two paintings above before I got in trouble — I didn’t know that even non-flash photography wasn’t allowed in the museum. Oops.

 

Prado

Before we even got to Spain, my sister Olga was bent on visiting the Prado — the famous (and enormous) museum in central Madrid. In fact, we chose a hotel that would put us close enough to make the walk there easy. I visited the Prado on my last day in Spain, with four members of my family, and saw many famous works. We were especially eager to see this Mona Lisa — believed to have been painted by Leonardo daVinci’s apprentice (and lover?) at the same time da Vinci was painting his version.

Another big moment for me was seeing El Greco’s life of Christ paintings. I’ve seen some of his work before, but the light in these paintings is absolutely remarkable. I also saw the original Annunciation altar piece by Fra Angelico, which is stunning.

There was so much to see, and apparently I missed one of the best parts of all: a temporary exhibit called The Hermitage, which my sister and mom saw this next day and said was amazing. (Sniff, sniff.)

I have to wonder if visiting these museums would have been so high on our list if it weren’t for Aunt Ann. I don’t think so. I’m really grateful for the world she opened up for me; she took seriously her role as aunt and shared what she loved with us. I owe her a great debt of gratitude and wish she could have joined us in Madrid for all the great art.

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul

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