Good Morning

Most of my life I’ve wanted to be a morning person   –  the girl who skips to the gym at      5 am, writes 20 pages of the novel post-shower and creates value for America’s shareholders between 9 and 7 – before finishing a DIY project,  heading to bed and starting all over again.   (It’s true, I swear:  I once had a boss who suggested ‘creating value for shareholders’ needed to be my primary motivation.  I laughed and suggested he dig deeper into his bag of motivation manuals to find another way to get me fired up. )  My point here is my body is wired for a slow, tranquil start  —  think 9 am train, first call at 10.

Suddenly, because of a job, I’m up at 5:30 and living a commuter’s life a few days a week, something I never wanted to do.  To survive, I’m trying to reconnect to my fantasy of early morning productivity and found writing time.  So far, so good.  Surprise, surprise — I like the early morning light.

Close to dawn, Brooklyn streets are almost quiet.   The few people I meet on my way to the subway respond to my smiles; and I’ve guided more than one fellow traveler over a narrow sliver of cleared sidewalk this winter.  I thank the folks who are up and shoveling — they groan, but laugh.   As March roared in with its titanic-sized bad attitude, this delicate early morning light is a reminder spring is creeping closer every day.  At this hour,  the subway is populated by New York’s workers   – and we’re a companionable, if tired, collection of souls.  Together we sleep, make extra space so others can sit, read, and meditate. 

Once I’m up, and moving through one city to get to another one,   I fall into a grove of moving meditation.  I’m learning commuter travel is an exercise in giving up our illusions of control – trains are late, subways stop, snow arrives or it doesn’t;  we get where we’re going on time and on schedule, or we don’t — but we do get there.  Calm is only possible when I surrender.

Everything in my life these days seems bent on reminding me that unrest and frustration feed off our dreams of control.  Control is an illusion, a false Oz of a master — that’s a motivational mantra I can actually work with.  Say it with me:  Onward into the mess, the pleasure, the unknown.  A late or delayed train is a gift of unscheduled time. 

A smart girl would grab that jewel and run with it.

The way home

The way home

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Writers write.  Artists and designers create.  Our daily habits define our lives.

In recent months my hard fought-for daily schedule nurturing time, quiet and the hard work of just being, has gone the way of the dinosaurs.  Change — much-anticipated and wished for  —  has mucked me up.  Clearly, in this new life,  my challenge will be finding ways to nurture peace and calm.  I need to pull my creative life back from the blur and noise of trains, the city,  snow storms  and sales metrics.  Joy lives in quiet, in kindness, in art, in surprise,  in friendship.

Joy, old friend, here I come. Thanks for leaving the light on.

2011-08-04 09.01.30

India, 2010 — a memory of calm, surprise and quiet.



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Creative Play: Visiting Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

Green 16

Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, Fall 2013
(C) Margaret Milnes

Keeping one’s creative juices flowing requires the consistent care and feeding of your imagination.  To that end, one of my weekly rituals is to go for a long walk with my camera and my curiosity.  If my day of creative play lands on the weekend, I am often joined on my adventures by Matt and my best friend Tyler.

This week the three of us explored Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.  Built in 1838 as a rural cemetery and retreat, the 438 acres of views, paths and ponds are now surrounded by city. When it opened, the park-like space quickly became the place for fashionable New Yorkers to spend eternity.  It’s here you will find the family plots of such famed New York names as Schermerhorn, Tiffany and Boss Tweed. You might also stumble upon the final resting place of Jean Michel Basquiat, Fred Ebb or Leonard Bernstein.  There’s still room if this fascinating, complex crowd appeals to you — The latest marketing brochure invites you to “Come for a visit;  stay for eternity.”

For me,  it’s the faded statuary memorializing the long-forgotten that appeals.  More proof — as if it’s needed — we’re all equals in the end.


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The Telegram

Bobby's grave in The Canadian Military Cemetery in Agira, Sicily.

Bobby’s grave in The Canadian Military Cemetery in Agira, Sicily.

Robert Downes,  of the 48th Canadian Highlanders, was my grandmother’s youngest brother. He died at the age of 22 in Sicily and is buried on a hillside overlooking Mount Etna.

In 1922, my great-grandmother passed away.  My grandmother,  Margaret Mary Downes, was just 12. She had 6 living brothers, 1 older and 5 younger than 11. Her older sister had died the winter before of diphtheria. Robert – known as Bobby – was the baby and the favorite.

Soon after her daughter died, my American great-great-grandmother arrived in Toronto with an offer:  Nanny should return with her to the US and together they’d live a better life. The noisy boys, unfortunately, were beyond her inclination and her means:  it would be best for everyone if they stayed in Toronto with their father, a drinking man.

Nanny told me she thought about it hard – she’d always wanted to travel to the far shore of Lake Ontario – but in the end she wouldn’t be budged.  She couldn’t leave Bobby, or the others.  She’d stay and raise them up. How hard could it be?

Disappointed, but accepting, my great-great-grandmother remained in Toronto for 10 more days.  Each morning she taught the girl something new — how to make a mince meat pie, a hearty stew, Christmas cake, mushroom gravy  —  everything she supposed a 12-year-old should know to raise a pack of boys and feed a drunken father. Then she got back on the train and went home to the States.  My grandmother never saw her again.

On the 3rd of August, 1943,  22 year-old Bobby sent his family in Toronto a telegram from Sicily after the worst fighting of the campaign had ended.  It read:  “Don’t worry. All’s well.”  He died 3 days later.

The stories my grandmother and great uncles told me –  tales of  war,  laughter, trouble and survival – fascinated me as I grew up. A memorial photograph of Bobby in his uniform, so young and handsome, was hung on the wall in each of their homes.  Thus inspired,  in 1986,  I hitch-hiked through Europe and on a whim, dragged my friend Liz to Sicily to find Bobby’s grave.  I was the first in my family to visit Agra.  My godfather,  great uncle Howie, wept when I gave him a picture of his baby brother’s grave.

Strangely, with all this talk about Bobby, I didn’t learn about the telegram until 2011,  years after my grandmother and her brothers had died.  At the sparsely attended funeral of my great uncle Eddie’s wife Marion – Ed and Marion were childless and Eddie had predeceased her years before  – I was handed an old envelope. In it was the original of Bobby’s happy telegram, frayed and yellowed, attached to a death notice from The Toronto Star, which also mentions the telegram. “All’s well” it reads.  All’s well.

Remarkably, the telegram was erased from the family story for over 60 years: I suppose their pain was beyond measure.  That final blinding detail was, in the end, too much to bear and too hard to tell.

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Toronto Awesome

My brother & I at the canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

My brother Bill & I at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, sometime in the last century.

Yesterday I found myself being mean about my home city.  I regretted it immediately as I began reading an old friend’s posts on Facebook  (the musician Michelle Rumball)  – Michelle is writing daily posts about the awesomeness of Toronto in hopes of reclaiming her city from the joke pile.  The mayor (who I am now calling ‘him-of-whom-we-do-not-speak’) may have turned her home into a crack pipe punch line, but Michelle — like so many Torontonians  — refuses to laugh.  She’s protesting  — and  trying to reclaim her home — by celebrating her love of TO,  not the horrid headlines.  To make amends, I’m joining in.

Toronto Awesomeness:  My Top Twenty

  1. The bat room at the Ontario Royal Museum
  2. The Scarborough Bluffs,  my teen heaven
  3. The stage at Cedarbrae C.I. in Scarborough
  4. My grandmothers’ old homes
  5. Abbeville Rd and the old & new neighbors from around the world who were kind to my father and to me
  6. The Bata Shoe Museum,  a quirky celebration of footwear through the ages
  7. The Boulevard Café on Harbord Street  –  if I know you, I’ve dragged you there for dinner
  8. Theatre Columbus and all the theater companies doing stellar work
  9. The Markham Road bus that never failed to get me downtown
  10. The Riverdale Zoo, location of a million birthday parties
  11. The Markham Road Public Library
  12. BookCity — everything I don’t know I want to read is there
  13. Center Island — so close and so wonderfully far away
  14. My old $500 loft — hip before I knew what hip was
  15. The Canadian National Exhibition — my August ritual of three-ticket rides and Margaret’s Donuts
  16. The O’keefe Center, Toronto’s old road house,  where I watched Mikhail Baryshnikov dance on the night he defected, a million productions of Anne Of Green Gables, Bob Dylan and more.
  17. Concerts and performances at Ontario Place – where I watched Barysnikov dance his thank you performance to Toronto and saw roses thrown onto a stage for the very first time
  18. The Metro Zoo
  19. The art fair in front of city hall
  20. The ice rink at city hall

And of course, extraordinary  Torontonians, my friends, of all ages  – filmmakers,  writers, teachers, editors, designers, scientists, social workers, actors, playwrites, mothers, daughters, neighbors.  Yes, Toronto is awesome.

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I’m an International Twitter Superstar: Marathon Jesus and Me

On Sunday morning Matt and I wandered to the corner of President Street and 4th Avenue in Brooklyn to cheer our friends as they ran The New York City Marathon.  I was awed by the runners. They were mostly average folks, of all ages, sizes and nationalities, all proving yet again that remarkable things happen when you commit to a goal.

And then barefoot Jesus ran by.  I took a pic and  posted it on my Twitter feed when I got home — I wrote “I found Jesus at the NYC Marathon.”  See above.

Moments later someone known as “@tylerkindcade”   –  no doubt trying to prove to a friend that he’d actually seen someone dressed like Jesus running the race barefoot at Mile 7  –  retweeted my tweet.  Almost at once, the world came knocking.

I think Tyler is friends with a Yahoo News editor: He retweeted.  Then the editor ran a story about Marathon Jesus using my pic as the lead.

jesus yahoo 2

Next I heard from the picture editor of The Daily Mail online — they liked it, too.  Could they run it?

Jesus Daily Mail 2

And so on.

An editor from New York’s Daily News joined the crowd.  The Huffington Post jumped on board.  The US Catholic Magazine retweeted right along with The Christian Post. Raycom National Media wanted it for their papers.  And then I couldn’t keep up — Marathon Jesus was off and running so to speak.

Sometimes I was credited and sometimes I wasn’t.  Friends I hadn’t heard from in ten years sent me a Tweet saying they saw my credit on KOB4 in Santa Fe, New Mexico: Could it really be me?  At first I said NO to Fox TV News (a girl has to stick to her principals, right?) but then I broke down, asked for $$ and never heard from them again. Happily, CNN jumped in and featured my Tweet.  Because it was a picture of Jesus,  a bunch of pastors and theology professors – and one or two crazies – joined the conversation.

Here’s the CNN video that tells MJ’s story and features my tweet:

And here are a few of my favorite retweet quips from across the Twitter universe:

“Saw him turn Gatorade into wine.”  –  @Kuilui

“Now that’s a cross to bear” — @Kuilui

“He’s cross-training…” – @TJLaFave

“You’re bigger than Jesus today …” @ShellMcPerson

“You’re His chosen photographer, clearly”   Paul Mcan on Facebook

“And you think an iPad is clunky” @LibyaLiberty

“My spirit animal is Marathon Jesus” @vaguelyfunnyDan  (he didn’t credit me but because he is vaguely funny I forgive him)

“He ran for your sins” @MattStaggs  (but I think this fella was serious)

Now it’s Tuesday at noon.  My “Marathon Jesus” pic continues to ping-pong through the universe,  captivating new and old media.  As of today I’m  at 292 retweets,  192 favorites and I’ve been contacted by five national media chains asking for permission to use it.  Whenever I ask  for $$,  I experience the Twitter equivalent of spontaneous-human-combustion – they vanish into thin air.  But at least they  ask  – it seems like tons of outlets from around the world didn’t and are using  it anyway.

I’m a natural at this, clearly.  Want to hire me?

If nothing else you should follow me @Milnes123.

My tweets go viral.   Really.

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Rules to Live By #5-#10 from The Elements of Style

Rule #5:

“As a rule it is better to express even a negative in positive form.”

Rule #6:

“Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.”

Rule #7:

“Common sense will aid you in the decision, but a dictionary is more reliable. ”

Rule #8

“Confusion and ambiguity result when words are badly placed.”

Rule #9:

“Sometimes …the interruption is a deliberate device for creating suspense.”

Rule #10:

And the grand finale  …

“We should all try to do a little better.”

The Elements of Style – Strunk, White & Kalman



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The Truth in Tallaght

DNA tests have proved the seven-year-old girl taken from a Roma family in Tallaght on Monday is their daughter. The parents arrived back home with their daughter at 9:45 pm. The little girl was rushed into the house with a blanket over her head. Her father spoke briefly to the media with one of his daughters translating. She said: “We don’t want it to happen to any family. That’s all he wants to say. He is very happy.”

The Independent, October 23, 2013

As this bizarre story played out in a media frenzy this week, it brought to mind a trip I took to Istanbul, fifteen or so years ago.

I visited Istanbul for the first time with a publishing colleague one October, after the Frankfurt Book Fair. We stayed in a hole-in-the-wall inn, and wandered the streets, enchanted. I planned one business meeting with our Turkish agent to justify the trip — I don’t remember her name, but she smoked like a chimney, as I did then. She had an elegant cool style, but was warm and engaging up close. We met in the bar of the Intercontinental Hotel just down the road from the Hagia Sophia. It was the slow season and a dark damp afternoon. Only the bartender and the two of us were in the bar.

We drank a glass or two of wine, talked about why the books I was selling would never Roma Children in Istanbulwork in Turkey, laughed, and traded industry gossip. When it was time for her to leave, I walked her to the door of the bar – turning my back on my papers and my bag. I hugged her, watched her cross the empty lobby of the hotel, called a final goodbye, and walked back to my table. My bag was gone.

I turned quickly to the bartender: “Have you seen my bag?”

He said nothing.

“My bag is gone,” I repeated dumbly.

“The Gypsies must have taken it,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“The Gypsies. They go everywhere doing horrible things.”

“Do they walk through walls? No one was here except you and my colleague.”

“I heard something while I was washing glasses, but didn’t see. It was the Gypsies.”

I asked to see the manager. He arrived quickly and was tall, urbane, with Warby Parker-like glasses and a thin polite smile. His name was Marcus as I recall.

“I understand that Gypsies have stolen your bag.”

“Someone has stolen my bag indeed, but I doubt it was Gypsies. A bartender perhaps?”

“Our employees are beyond … measure. Clearly, it was Gypsies.”

In the bag was my wallet, a few hundred dollars in cash, a string of pearls I’d taken off while wandering and forgotten to store in my room, and a notebook. And my green card. I wanted my bag back.

“Let me find my friend Issan,” I said. “I’m sure he’ll be able to help sort this all out.”

I left the bar, walked out the front doors of the hotel, and across the street to Issan’s carpet shop. The carpet salesman was an old friend of my publishing colleague. The night before we’d stayed up until the wee hours, listening to stories about the night in the 80s when his village was illuminated by electricity. He spoke five languages, loved Leonard Cohen and suffered from a weak stomach he was forever complaining about. I’d known him for 2 days and loved him.

I dragged Issan back with me across the street, explaining what had happened. I was spinning into a panic. Marcus and Issan barked at each other, aggressively, in Turkish, both massaging their evil-eye key rings, not really looking at each other, and ignoring me. Finally, Issan turned to me:

“The Gypsies took it.”

I may have actually stamped my foot: “A Gypsy DID NOT take my bag. Someone in this hotel did. Please take me to the police.”

This caused more back-and-forth chatter, but louder, and with a new edge. Thirty minutes later Issan and I were sitting in a grimy police station. I was drinking apple tea and smiling politely at a gray-faced man Issan told me was the big boss, the police chief. Once again, Issan was translating:

“He says you are wearing a dress like the women in his village. You must be a nice woman.”

I was wearing a blue, empire-waist, old Jones New York dress I pulled out then when I travelled – you could roll it into a ball and wear it anywhere – to a police station or a cocktail party. I miss that dress to this day.

“He says he wants to apologize to you on behalf of the good people of Turkey. He will give you a document for your insurance company, but he wants to find the evil ones who committed this crime.”

I smiled.

Issan and he chattered back and forth some more.

“He wants us to wait in the other room. Someone on his team will bring us pictures for you to look at.”

Out I went from his office. I was handed another glass of warm sweet apple tea. We waited. Soon the boss himself returned, carrying what looked like a box of photo albums, the kind you have at home with kittens on the front cover. He smiled gently. I understood I was expected to open the albums and find my criminal – the bartender? — and so I opened one. And then another, and another.

The bartender wasn’t there. No one who looked like him was. The albums were filled with image after image of Roma faces — some blank-eyed, some frightened, many with bruised or cut eyes and cheeks. I touched the pictures. I saw women, old and young, children of every age, husbands and fathers, grandfathers. Page after page of broken, depleted, beat-up faces.

“Do you see the Gypsy who did this horrible thing?” Issan translated.

This story goes on and on for a while. Other remarkable, odd things happened that day in Istanbul, before my green card was returned to me — which it was — but I will tell you all about that some other time.

The essential point of this story is the same today, in 2013, when the week’s headlines brought to mind those battered faces from an old photo album, as it was that afternoon, so long ago: Forever assumed to be guilty, what the Roma do mostly is suffer. Yet again, the Gypsy didn’t do it.

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Rules to Live By #4

“Waste no words.”

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style

The Columbia Icefield,  Canada

The Columbia Icefield, Canada, 2012.

Ice melt since 2000.

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Rules to Live By #3

“…brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

Strunk and White, The Elements of Style

Cheaperthantherapy @Milnes123


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