October 2023

“I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have for life and my way of expressing it.” —Henri Matisse

Photo by Elissa

Sitting outside at Noah’s on a beautiful day with my special drink, soda water and cranberry juice.

Dear Friends,

I love you! September is always a beautiful month in New England. This year, everything seemed especially lush and green because we had a great deal of rain. I wrote you at the beginning of September with my intentions for the month ahead. I anticipated enjoying all the simple, sensual pleasures of each fresh new day, seeing beauty in the most ordinary moments.

September was, for me, simply sublime, as my heart and soul delighted in being “oh, so mellow.” I was living with intense appreciation for my great good fortune to be alive and thriving. Living well takes time and focused attention. Because of the gift of my longevity, the quality of each waking hour becomes increasingly important to me. I’m blessed to be embracing this gloriously illuminating reality of being an “old lady.” I’m old by all measures. I am not taking anything for granted. I’m not in any hurry to end this earthly adventure, but I’m glad I’m aware of the shortness of life’s timeline.

Everyone I love knows how much I value our meaningful bond. When I genuinely admire someone, I send loving energy toward that individual, and hold them up to the light. Often I think of my mentor, Mrs. Brown, who told me when she was in her late 80s that she’d die when her usefulness is up. We all know it’s not how long we live in years, it’s how many years we put into our days.

Photo by Elissa

These beautiful dahlias were a generous gift from Lorraine’s garden.

Virginia Woolf wrote about days as long as years. Michel de Montaigne, the philosopher who created the essay form in the 16th century, believed living is an act, and how we choose to think and be is our responsibility. We grow to learn from experience that it is often the simplest free moments, unpressured by time restraints, when we feel our greatest sense of fulfillment and happiness.

The Chinese sage Lao Tzu taught us, “The way to do is to be.” One of the most extraordinary benefits of living in my 80s is that I have the time to let my mind wander and to pay close attention to what I am thinking. Rather than dreaming when asleep, this expansive feeling of “lightness of being,” while mindfully alert, requires uninterrupted leisure time to contemplate. This is the necessary luxury of this bonus time at the short end of our life’s spectrum.

Peter and I referred to these unscheduled times as “white spaces” in our calendars. Rather than filling in the empty spaces, we considered them sacrosanct. This is our time. Because I studied Aristotle when I was in art school as a teenager, I learned from him that we work hard for others in order to have leisure time to do our inner work and contemplate life from the highest point of view.

Photo by Elissa

This sweet little hydrangea came from my garden.

Whenever I spend long stretches of time to read, to write, to be alone in nature, invariably I feel refreshed, grateful and, indeed, useful. Aristotle firmly believed this private, personal leisure time will bring us our greatest happiness when it is well spent. When we build in these white spaces in our days, this habit builds up to become an essential way of being, of living.

When Peter was at Yale, he took some English classes with William Lyon Phelps, who believed we can paint the walls of our minds with many beautiful pictures. I love how beauty can penetrate into the essence of our soul. Every beautiful garden, sunrise, sunset and moon walk has a way of influencing my outlook and perspective. I love how one beautiful experience leads to some tender action. I love how one thought leads to another, because all the truly meaningful experiences I’ve ever had influence these soulful moments of being present.

I can humbly say I am as happy as I have ever been. All the people, places and things I have loved, in all the richly experienced decades that have led me to where I am today, magnify my feeling of gratitude and inner peace. I am living my best life right now. I’m genuinely grateful for every breath of life I’m given. If fate allows, I will be able to continue to live to the hilt.

Peter signing copies of his book Village.

I don’t deliberately analyze my dreamy thoughts. However, I enjoy having regular soulful, solitary moments to ponder some of life’s deepest questions and mysteries. As I’ve naturally slowed down with aging, I feel so much calmer and content when I’m not in a rush. I love to take time when I’m alone to deliberately put myself in slow motion and pause to appreciate what I’m experiencing at the moment. The sudden light bursting through the clouds is cause to embrace the sun. Living well, indeed, takes time. “Hurry never” was one of Peter’s mottos.

When I’m in the right frame of mind, I’ve discovered that “in a moment there is time.” I have much more bounce to my steps and kinetic energy when I value my time alone with the same focus that I have when I am in the company of friends, family and community. Alone, I’m free to listen to my inner voice; in communion with others, I enjoy listening to their stories. I’m delighted when we’re able to both engage in a mutually stimulating conversation, especially when it scratches deep below the surface.

My white spaces allow for spontaneity that often brings delights. One morning, my friend Mike dropped by unexpectedly on his way to the store while his wife was at sailing lessons. We had coffee, and within 15 or 20 minutes, we had a substantive interchange that sweetened my morning. I seem to thrive living in this sweet village I’ve grown to love so completely. Peter’s book Village: Where to Live and How to Live reflects how important a healthy community is to our happiness.

Photo by Tony

Enjoying the beautiful Sakonnet Garden in Little Compton, Rhode Island.

Soon, Mike went off in order to get home in time for a 10 a.m. Zoom meeting. I embrace spontaneous surprises, especially when I’ve spent invaluable time in meditation, studying, contemplation and writing. I love my dear friendly neighbors’ surprise visits!

When I feel I have a healthy balance between “solitude and society” (as Emerson wrote a book about), I know how this balance can unavoidably become interrupted. Illness, accidents and death are happening all the time. The more people we know and love, the more of their losses we will experience. There’s always some thoughtful gesture we can make in the circumstances of others’ pain and loss.

Even when our vulnerable balance is disrupted, we learn from experience to act immediately because later might be too late. We always feel so good inside when we show up for someone who is hurting. Sometimes, as we all know, it takes courage to confront someone who is deeply suffering. We have to remind ourselves that unexpected, sad circumstances rarely come at “the right time.” We’re never inappropriate when we extend a loving hand to a friend. We may never know for certain how much it helps those we love; however, we will always feel glad to do the right thing in real time. Healing goes with empathy.

Photo by Elissa

Nature’s geometric perfection.

Leadership in Turbulent Times

The Hingham Historical Commission had its second lecture in September at the Hingham Town Hall. Last year, I was invited to the Virginia Tay Memorial Lecture because Jon Meacham was the speaker, and I’m a huge fan. By a wonderful coincidence, my daughter was visiting me from Maryland this year, and she was invited by Virginia’s twin sister, Mary Anne. This year’s speaker was Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian, Pulitzer Prize winner and author.

After Mrs. Goodwin’s inspiring talk about the importance of character in leadership, we were all invited to go to a lovely reception and dinner at Mary Anne’s historical house that her sister lived in before she died. Mrs. Goodwin autographed her books and visited with her adoring followers.

Photo by Elissa

My new back button-down shirt is so fun!

When Laura Bush, a former librarian, was the First Lady, she had a literary event in Washington where Mrs. Goodwin gave a talk in the “History” tent. My talk, “Things I Want My Daughters to Know,” was in the “Home” tent. The next morning, all the authors were invited to the White House for a group photograph before an elegantly presented breakfast.

At the Hingham event, when it was my turn in line to have Doris autograph a book for Alexandra, I reminded her of our meeting all those years ago. As we strolled through the historic rooms after breakfast, I vividly remember her enthusiasm as she spoke with reverence about some of her favorite presidents. Our reunion was touching because she was glad to learn about my daughter’s work. When we said goodbye, I felt we’d made a real connection. “We’ll meet again, Alexandra,” she said.

We are the same age. She has a new book coming out this spring. I have a feeling we will meet again. I was inspired by her message about the need for moral strength in those in power. We want to look up to our leaders and strive to emulate their values. We are influenced by those who guide us. Just as we want ethical men and women to teach our children in school, we want good, decent people in power, with high standards and good reputations.

The Manet/Degas exhibition at the Met is incredible.

Mother-Daughter Day

To celebrate the ninth anniversary of Peter Brown’s death (he often referred to it as “going to our reward”), Brooke and I hopped an early morning train, went to New York City and took an awaiting taxi directly to the Metropolitan Museum. On Sunday, September 24, a sensational exhibition of two great 19th century artists opened. The next day, Monday, September 25, we were there to become fully absorbed in Manet and Degas’ artistic influence. This once-in-a-lifetime experience will be in exhibit through January 7, 2024. I have a feeling I’ll return to revisit some of the paintings I especially loved and can recall seeing details I’d not been aware of before, as well as those lent from private collections and museums I was unfamiliar with. This excellently curated blockbuster of a show is definitely an aesthetically illuminating opportunity I will cultivate in my heart forever. How blessed to be able to have this rare opportunity so easy to experience. (When we lived in New York, we visited the Met weekly, a few blocks from our apartment.)

A Woman Seated, by Edgar Degas

These two 19th century French artists were born two years apart, Manet in 1832 and Degas in 1834. They lived “parallel lives” and “parallel art.” The New York Times feature article in the two-page Weekend Arts section featured several photographs of some of the 160 paintings and drawings on display. What’s astonishing is that the Musée d'Orsay and the Metropolitan Museum own half these works of art!

Everything is interconnected. My love of Claude Monet began when I was five and saw my first Impressionist paintings at the Boston Fine Arts Museum with my godmother and mother. Mitzi was on the board of the museum, and because she was an artist, her introduction to these French artists fired my lifelong enthusiasm. The art spirit is in my blood.

Claude Monet was a passionate gardener. “I work at my garden all the time and with love. What I need most are flowers, always.” Monet was eight years younger than Manet, and it is quite evident that they, too, influenced each other’s creative expression.

The Monet Family in Their Garden, by Édouard Manet

One of my favorite Manet paintings, one I often showed in my lectures, is called The Monet Family in Their Garden. The painting depicts Claude Monet’s wife, Camille, red fan in hand, and their son Jean. They are relaxed, seated on the grass under a tree. Monet is off to the side, tending his geraniums in his garden he so dearly loved. A large watering can is a prominent feature. Roosters are crowing. A tiny baby chick is in a patch of light a few feet away from Camille’s shoes that peek out from under her white dress. Both mother and son are gazing in the same direction, causing the viewer to wonder what is arresting their eye.

Camille’s left hand is under her chin, a symbol of deep concentration, while Claude’s left hand is stretched across his kneecap, giving the impression his leg could be aching from his labor.

This painting is one of my favorites in the Met’s permanent collection.

In my book, The Postcard as Art: Bring the Museum Home, published in 1985, my epigraph is apt.

“Only the artists are on the right track, for it may be (that only) they can bring beauty into our lives, to give the world reason (without artists) is impossible.” —Georges Clemenceau, the great World War I statesman and close friend of Claude Monet

I featured this postcard in my book with the knowledge of the deep connection between these two artists, Manet and Degas. On each page I quote an artist, and on this page I used Degas’ words upon Manet’s death: “He was greater than we thought.”

Opposite the postcard of this garden painting, after Degas’ quotation, I wrote:

"Manet captured Monet doing what he loved to do when he wasn’t painting: gardening. His model, mistress, and finally, wife, Camille, and son Jean, are relaxed under a tree in the garden enjoying a perfect summer day. This painting inspired me to suggest to my best friend Tess that she have a mother-daughter portrait painted, outside in her garden, which she did. Renoir painted this same scene of Monet and family in his garden.”

La Famille Bellelli, by Edgar Degas

Seeing this extraordinary exhibition with Brooke was so wonderful. We left the galleries on such a high. We had lunch on the fourth floor of the Met overlooking Central Park, in their main restaurant seated near the window. When we slipped into the comfortable seats, Brooke smiled. “It feels so good to sit down!” Ah.

When Kristoff brought us the menu, we were surprised by joy and wanted to taste so many delicious specialties. He helped us select some special nonalcoholic cocktails before our celebration banquet. We knew we were living it up, feeling so full of gratitude for Peter’s life and all the joy he gave us and still does. All the subtle flavors we experienced we shared in order to mutually savor such a special memorable, relaxed celebration. We were truly at the banquet of life, in the present, at a feast for the soul as well as our bodies.

Le dj́euner sur l'herbe, by Édouard Manet

Our only deadline for the day was to take an afternoon train home. We were not in any rush. Because Peter and I had a lemon obsession we shared throughout our lives together, Brooke and I told Kristoff we were more than happy to wait 12 minutes for the special lemon madeleines for dessert. We savored dipping our Proustian taste treats—so obscenely, sensually pleasing—in the confectioners’ powdered sugar, sipping our coffee and cappuccino, listening to the rain pound down on the obliquely angled windows. We felt comforted, nurtured, nourished and inspired. In summary, we had a most happy day celebrating Peter’s life. We definitely brought him with us on our intimate day together.

Photo by Tony

Tony took this photo of the incredible sunset.

The Calm Before the Storm

I’m often astonished by the awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping sunsets I’m privileged to observe so often here in the coastal seaside village of Stonington. The evening before we were expected to be hammered with heavy winds and rain from a hurricane, I’d been in the yard with Charlie and Kevin, who was deadheading the window boxes and rosebushes. Everything looked so beautiful, we were hoping we would be spared serious damage.

I went inside to the kitchen to prepare my dinner when I saw a lilac sky from a window looking east. Once outside, I saw pale vivid blue with puffs of clear rose-pink tones in rows of fast-moving patterns. When I walked to the front yard, I looked up over the harbor and the sky seemed on fire with vibrancy in flame-orange pinks. Kevin returned to look. Charlie had walked down to NESS, the science and sailing camp, to take pictures of the sky with the boats. Down the street at Cannon Square, Tony took some pictures. No pictures can even do justice to the living, fast-changing wonder of this spectacular visual sky show. Once the images are etched into the inner chambers of our retinas, we’re able to retrieve the memory through our ability to visualize.

Photo by Elissa

Pink roses from Lisa alongside lovely blue delphiniums.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President!

Jimmy Carter’s 99th birthday is October 1, 2023. He and his wife Rosalynn have been married 77 years. A recent New York Times article said she is reminiscing about some of the great times they’ve had together. Jimmy is savoring life, making every day a celebration. They continue to offer us lessons in dignity and grace.

In 1977, Peter and I went to a reception at the White House to honor the new president. When it was my turn in the receiving line to shake his hand, I said, “Mr. President, it’s an honor to meet you.” “Mrs. Stoddard,” he said, “the pleasure is all mine.” I can still remember his soft Southern accent and genuine smile.

When I was host of the new television show Homes Across America, on what is now HGTV, I flew to Kentucky to build a house for a family for Jimmy Carter’s Habitat for Humanity. All the hosts of the shows were invited to come, join in, put on a hard hat and goggles and hammer away. I was exhilarated to actually experience the power of good intentions in action.

Photo by Elissa

The slice of light on this chair filled me with awe.

The building materials had been prefabricated, all measured precisely in order for our TV team to literally build a house in one day. It was the same way Julia Child made cooking look easy on TV, because many of the ingredients had already been chopped, diced and minced, measured and marinated ahead of time. If I remember correctly, the house’s foundation was in place and the wood floor had already been laid. Our job was to erect the walls in order for the construction professionals to put on the roof.

This humble peanut farmer from Georgia who became president of the United States is the longest-living president in history. He has defied death, beat cancer and retained his sense of humor. A week before this birthday, the Carters showed up at a peanut celebration in his hometown!

The next time I’m in Washington, I’d like to go see the full-length portrait of him at the National Portrait Gallery. As his earthly journey is coming to an end, he is in love. He and his wife are at peace, and they are at home, together. His secret to a well-lived life is love and finding ways to serve. Let’s all join him in having some peanut butter ice cream—his go-to flavor!

Photo by Tony

These aubergines are works of art!

My New Project

As I have written here many times, I am so grateful to you, my readers, for the love and support you have shown me throughout the years. Your letters mean the world to me, and I am fortunate to be able to connect with you through my newsletter and books. The friendship I have with each of you fills my soul and enriches my life.

I am experimenting with a new idea and would like to know your thoughts. As you know, I had to stop having in-person events during the height of the pandemic, and while I will still accept some invitations to make live appearances when it’s suitable, I cannot regularly hold gatherings with my readers anymore for multiple reasons. I have been encouraged to continue to find ways to share my work with you, and I would like to use video to do this.

In these sessions, I will share my many decades of study and my passion for art and nature and how you can enhance your daily life, and happiness, by connecting to both. While I don’t want them to be costly, there will be a nominal fee for these courses since they require a great deal of staff work. Please let me know what you think of this new project and what ideas you may have for it. I look forward to your thoughts!

I’ve been deeply enriched by your thoughtful, encouraging communications. This new project is something I hope you will find a useful addition to our relationship.

Happy October! Thank you for your continued support.

Love & Live Happy,

This month, I’m letting go of a lithograph by Roger Mühl if anyone is interested in adding it to their art collection; please contact Pauline at Artioli Findlay (artiolifindlay@gmail.com) for more information.

Roger Mühl (French, 1929 - 2008)
Provence II, Au - delà du vallon se dressait
Limited edition French lithograph
Image and sheet size: 16 3/8 x 12 1/4 in
Executed / printed 1986
Edition # VII/XX
A French landscape of umbrella trees in the foreground with valleys and mountains in the distance. 
Photo by Elissa

A cheerful collection of blossoms in tiny vases.