Telling the Stories of our Lives: An Gates

Funded by a generous grant from the Tacoma Arts Commission in partnership with Puget Sound Book Artists, Anthea Karanasos Hubanks and Tacoma Seniors Write launched a series of creative writing workshops titled “Telling the Stories of Our Lives” at three Tacoma Senior Centers. The workshops consisted of a fun medley of classes for Elders interested in telling their stories through memoir, prose, letters, haiku, work collage, travelogues, and prose. In March 2020, as Washington State senior centers closed temporarily in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Anthea restructured the project. In place of the workshops, she conducted a series of phone interviews with five workshop participants — Myrtle Appling, Orv Harrelson, Barbara Jones, Constancio Bolima, and An Gates — and produced the following vignettes from the interviews. This is An Gates’ story.

An Gates and I first met in early spring at Tacoma’s Point Defiance-Ruston Senior Center during one of my creative writing classes. We reunited for a phone chat on a gorgeous Northwest day, a stellar summer still lingering into mid-October.

ANTHEA: Hi there, An. Thanks so much for taking time on this gorgeous day to share some stories of your life with me. I’m curious to know if and how your life has changed during the pandemic and this time of sheltering in place. Have you been slowing things down a little and maybe finding ways to feed your spirit? Tell me if the pandemic has changed things for you.

AN: I’ve been retired since 2008, I live alone, and I’ll turn 72 on my next birthday. So I’m very used to scheduling my own days, or not scheduling anything as the case may be. At first it was entirely frustrating. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I did a lot of things that seemed like a waste of time. I watched a lot of YouTube Korean cooking videos. Then I got into a guy who works on bonsai. I spent maybe six hours watching that man do bonsai, and all the while I kept trying to convince myself to work on my art.

ANTHEA: What is your art, An? Tell me more about that.

AN: I’m a book artist, and I’ve had a couple of projects that I wanted to work on. So I was thinking about that this morning. I’ve done some things regarding my art but at a much slower pace than usual. I had a very hard time forcing myself to go into my studio and just do something.

ANTHEA: Do you have any idea why this might be? I’ve heard the same comments from other artists too, about their struggle to be inspired to create during the pandemic and all the associated unknowns.

AN: I think it’s a kind of blockage caused by the stress. It’s so intense. Back in March for the first several weeks, I didn’t go out at all. I was indoors all the time. And I seem to always have quite a lot of food around,  so I think I spent the first five weeks just inside, not going to the store, not seeing anyone, and keeping up way too much on Facebook and social media. I was kind of glued to it. And I was listening to the news maybe four hours a day. Since I’ve cut down on the news absorption, I’m much happier, and I’m in the studio more. 

ANTHEA: I’m glad to hear you’re back in the studio! How long did it take to decide to cut back on news and social media?

AN: I think that probably took about three months. The yoga studio I used to go to offered a self-compassion workshop for six weeks and that was an activity that very much fed my spirit. That was just a wonderful experience. There were nine of us in a Zoom workshop and I began to de-stress. I had probably cut the news consumption in half by that point. Around that time I started going for weekly walks with a friend. We walk in the woods which I’ve always gained a great deal from, being out in nature. So I began to have weekly in-person time which I really needed, and in a place that’s restoring for me. 

The workshop was my first experience with Zoom. Then I began having Zoom calls with one of my sisters. And I took another workshop that way. It seems like there were four or five ways I was using Zoom. I got to actually see other people. Living alone [An chuckles] … sometimes I go into the bathroom and end up making faces at myself just to see another human face doing something, which I thought was absolutely crazy but then I decided, well if it’s helping, that’s fine. I also had a Zoom appointment with one of my doctors which was interesting. He wore a mask which I thought was funny.

ANTHEA: I’m really glad to hear that, An. So seeing other people’s faces on Zoom and your weekly walks in the woods with a friend have helped you cut back on news and social media — which means less stress. And all of that has helped you feel restored and inspired to get back into the studio again. That’s great!

AN: And another thing … I live in a condominium and we have some gardening cubes in the backyard. I took on three of those. We have quite a bit of food out there now — lettuces and little tomatoes and cucumbers. So that got me outdoors too. I’ve been a lifelong gardener, but since I moved into the condominium — which was four years ago — I hadn’t gardened at all. I was mostly traveling. I got to go to Italy and another time I went to France. And I visited family back east. I didn’t think I would be able to keep up a garden, so living in a condo made sense. 

ANTHEA: So your retirement plans included a lot of travel. That sounds wonderful. Was traveling in some way feeding your spirit, which was interrupted with coronavirus restrictions and what feels like endless sheltering in place?

AN: Yes! I like to call it sheltering in the studio, although I’ve not been doing that as much as I’d like. I was thinking this morning about what I actually have done. So my first weekend of self-isolation was March 7th. That was the last day I saw people. I don’t know how long that’s been — seven months, eight months? A long time! And I’ve ended up submitting work for a show and having it accepted, then filling out the application and things like that. I had done this before locally — submitting work — but this was my first national show. 

ANTHEA: So you’re branching out and going a bit farther afield with your book art submissions. I’ve seen some of the exhibits at the University of Puget Sound library and I’ve probably seen some of your pieces on display. Did you have anything in the exhibits just before the pandemic, say in 2019, when I was there?

AN:  I didn’t. I had been at an artist residency in France in 2019. I went to France in June so that’s what was on my mind — the book I was going to be making at the residency. 

ANTHEA: That sounds exciting! How long was your artist residency? 

AN: It was a full month which was great. And I did a lot of gel printing — a kind of printing where you use actual plant material. I gathered all the natural materials and leaves from the botanical garden in Marnay-sur-Seine.

ANTHEA: I’d love to hear more about your slowing down during the pandemic. So you learned some new recipes and tried your hand at bonsai. How about sitting quietly and doing nothing at all?

AN: [chuckles …] Yes, I’ve done some of that, but I’m mostly a reader. I read something like a hundred books a year, so that was another way I found to quietly escape. 

ANTHEA: Do you have any books you can recommend — books that stand out? 

AN: There’s one book I discovered when watching the PBS Newshour. They interviewed a woman during the political conventions who lives in Kansas. She brought a view from the middle of the country and wrote about that. The book is called Heartland. I liked what she had to say so much. She spoke about what she had observed from her neighbors — people in Kansas. And I thought, “Well, I’ll read her book!” And I would recommend that book to anybody. I got so much out of it.

Another thing that I spent a lot of time with is writing my own pandemic book.

ANTHEA: You wrote a book? That’s great!

AN: Yes, I started a pandemic book and I finished it. I’m going to submit it to an exhibition that’s due next month. This is a book art submission. In the book, I listed all sorts of things I’ve done during the pandemic. I made face masks. I worked on an impossible Van Gogh puzzle. Then there’s the Korean cooking on YouTube. I started out really enjoying cooking, but now not so much. I began raising sunflower and radish sprouts, that kind of thing. I did a lot of research. I’m one of the artists included in a project called Science Stories: A collaborative exhibit showcasing Book Artists and Scientists. The exhibit is coming to the University of Puget Sound in 2021. I’m preparing my work on the Green River Watershed Science Stories, so I did a lot of research on that. I had a video call conference with my project collaborator and so that was good.

And screens — that’s another topic in my book. Screens of all kinds — phones, tablets, desktops, TVs. I put eye drops on my list. I needed eyedrops because I was reading so much and looking at so many screens. And I took a lot of photos of things around my home. I have real plants on my little deck so I took photos of those with the sun coming in, and I took photos of the garden cube outside.

My book includes the Zoom self-compassion gathering and some new products I ordered online to try out. I found this one that was supposed to do your laundry without using liquid soap but it turned out to not work. I watched Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans” and that took me down a rabbit hole about questioning the current thinking about environmentalism. The film asks us: “What is the best thing to do?”

And I included my online purchases in the book. I ordered three pairs of shoes!

ANTHEA: Wow, An. Maybe that means you’re getting ready to get out there and walk even more.

AN: [chuckling …] Yes, maybe so! And I made donations to Northwest Harvest because I know that I’m in a pretty good place. I’m not at risk financially. I think about people around here and throughout the country who just don’t have enough. And that was kind of new for me. Before I’ve done things like given money to Planned Parenthood. So this one seemed a little more personal. So that’s my list of the things I’ve done during the pandemic.

ANTHEA: That’s an amazing list, An. I can’t wait to see the artwork illustrating your list.

You mentioned in emails we exchanged that you grew up in the Midwest and your family moved every couple of years to different cities in Iowa, Ohio, and Michigan. Then you attended Michigan State University in East Lansing after your parents moved to Philadelphia. So you’ve experienced quite a bit of the country before moving to Tacoma in 1988. I’m wondering if you would share some thoughts on living in Tacoma during the pandemic. People across the country are struggling right now, and in some places, life is much harder than it is here in the Northwest. We’re very lucky in that. What are your thoughts? Do you see benefits of living here while sheltering in place during these uncertain times?

AN: Oh yes, the beauty of this area makes a huge difference. As soon as I was on my own, I moved from the Midwest to San Francisco then moved north. I lived in Vancouver, then Bellingham, then Seattle, and then Tacoma. And I just feel that Tacoma is where I belong. So that’s a good thing for sheltering at home. It’s a very good thing. Tacoma is a comfortable, beautiful place to live.

ANTHEA: That’s so true. I believe that sometimes the place we come from isn’t necessarily the place that feels like our true home. Since you’ve traveled a lot and lived in different places, you understand this. I think that to survive and thrive through a pandemic, it helps to be in a place that feels like our true home.

Thirty years ago when you moved here, what was happening in your life and what brought you to Tacoma?

AN: I had been a potter in Bellingham for five years and I finally accepted that I was not making a good living — that I needed to find a different job. So I started working in a bank in Bellingham doing trust work, helping people manage their money, pay their bills, arrange living situations, hire caretakers — that kind of thing. I also did a lot of estate work for people who didn’t have family to handle their estates. I got a call from a headhunter looking for someone to do trust administration at Washington Mutual in Seattle. So I moved there and worked as an assistant vice president for six years.  When Washington Mutual was going to be sold, I found a new banking job which is what brought me to Tacoma. And it was just the right job for me. I loved my work, received promotions, became head of administration for Seattle and Tacoma, and worked four out of five days in the Tacoma office.

And I met my husband here in Tacoma the year I turned 40. We fell in love, got married, and had a child. We had a good home and home life. I really enjoyed being a mom. I still enjoy being a mom! My son just turned 29. 

ANTHEA: So, you had a child in your 40s! That sounds like an adventure. How did that go for you?

AN: I was thrilled to be pregnant and was very much looking forward to finding out what being a mom would be like. It was weird. I didn’t feel 40! 

ANTHEA: That’s so true. I think we often don’t feel the age that we are.

Are there places in Tacoma that became part of your existence before the pandemic — places you loved because they fed you in some way? 

AN: The Grand Cinema! Boy, do I miss that place! They sent me the email for the film festival this year. The last four or five years, I’ve gone to something like 70 films during each festival. My son is a film director so I’ve always loved film, even from back in college watching Fellini. Then when my son got interested in film, it just really kindled all of my old enthusiasm for it.

And there’s the Mexican restaurant I love — Tonala — on 38th near Costco. My best friends are a couple and we would go there together for a meal at least once a month. Not only not seeing them, but not having my favorite food was driving me nuts. My friends live in Puyallup, so I picked up to-go food from Tonala and we sat out on their deck probably eight feet apart to be socially distanced. I suppose we were three or four months into the lockdown then. That was probably the most relaxing, enjoyable time I’ve had in months.

ANTHEA: What a great story, An. Opportunities like that will be harder to come by as the weather cools. 

AN: True. I’m thinking that maybe we can share our Tonala to-go food over a Zoom call so we can see each other. 

ANTHEA: That’s a great idea. With Zoom you could even get together with friends and relatives in other countries.

AN: I did a workshop on Zoom hosted out of Morocco which I wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise. There were people in Wales and several in the United States at the workshop.

You’re reminding me that there were four of us living together in a house during that artist residency in France I mentioned earlier. We’ve had three cocktail parties during the pandemic. One person is in New York, two are in Mississippi, and there’s me out here. 

ANTHEA: Nice! So you had a cocktail party with artist friends you met in France. It’s interesting to consider — that’s a gathering that probably wouldn’t have happened if not for the pandemic. We’re being inspired to come up with creative ways to stay connected. I believe there are many new things we’re doing to create community. Back when we could get together, we might have dismissed these virtual meetings by saying, “Oh, that’s not good enough — we need to get together together.” Gathering via Zoom with people who are thousands of miles away, and maybe even continents away, is far better than not getting together at all. At that distance, people might wait a decade or more to reunite in person. 

AN: Yes that’s true. Or possibly never. I went to an artist residency in Italy, maybe three years before I went to France, and we’ve not kept in touch at all. So this new group of friends feels unique. 

ANTHEA: It’s possible that because your residency in France happened not long before the coronavirus outbreak, people feel a need to be more creative. As a writer, I’m keeping up with writer friends who have been published within the last few months. I just attended a live YouTube poetry reading and book launch with a poet friend and several others. I would not have been able to attend because the launch was in New York. It was wonderful being able to listen to each poet read from their living room. I believe this is opening up opportunities to partake of more cultural events than ever before, whether it’s a virtual tour of the Metropolitan Art Museum or a play performed live from the stage of London’s Globe Theatre. I think this is really great. 

AN: I fully agree. Another thing like that is every year on Walt Whitman’s birthday, a friend in New York from the artist residency reads from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. There’s a live event with a group of her friends. She did one of those readings virtually during the pandemic, so I was able to attend. 

ANTHEA: I love that the virtual offerings are so abundant. You mentioned earlier the self-compassion course you took via Zoom that lasted six weeks. Are you still practicing on your own? 

AN: Yes! And I have a book that the person who led the class referred to. So I can see what the techniques are. Really, one of the best things about the class was learning that when you’re home alone, you can do something good for yourself. 

ANTHEA:  What are a couple of the practices you learned that have been the most helpful?

AN: Meditating for sure! And accepting that we’re all people and we’re all responding to this pandemic in our own way. And whatever way that is, is just fine, as long as we’re not harmful to ourselves or others. 

ANTHEA: So then is meditating something you do pretty regularly now?

AN: It’s something that I’ve been doing off and on for 40 or 50 years, even before the self-compassion class. I kind of notice when I’m off a little bit, and I tell myself to just go sit in my chair and be quiet and let your mind smooth out. When I’m working, making books, preparing books, I have a much more regular practice. I like to meditate before I start in the morning and do a little yoga, and that sort of opens me up to whatever. I’m very structured, and when making books is going well, it can feel like meditation. When it feels like the work is happening by itself and it’s not me, that feels like meditation. The best possible work space is to be in that zone. 

ANTHEA: You mentioned you like cooking. Tell me more about the kind of cooking you like to do. 

AN:  I have some of that on my pandemic list. I like growing sprouts and there is a yellow curry shrimp I love to make. I like Asian food so I enjoy making that. One new thing — I was at the grocery store walking down the meat aisle and I spotted these little itty bitty hams, so I bought one and, oh man, I enjoy those any old way! I’ve developed a one-egg omelet that I add all kinds of things to — mushrooms, spinach, some of the ham. And along with that, I had frozen hash browns … [An chuckles] … oh, this is food I would usually never, ever eat. So I thought, “What’s the matter with me?!” I also enjoy making black bean chicken, salt and pepper shrimp, tofu stir fries, oysters, and crispy fried rice which is a New York Times recipe that’s amazingly good! I’ve learned that I’m gluten intolerant, so I tried making gluten free flatbreads and turmeric dahl. And I finally made a lemon tahini dressing that I really like.

ANTHEA: That’s great that you’ve been experimenting with so many new recipes while sheltering in place. On the topic of food, if you could host a quiet, leisurely dinner party at your home and invite any four people, who would you invite?

AN: If I could invite four people, I would have my son and his girlfriend, and my best friends, Lenny and Zoom. 

ANTHEA: Wow, well that would be a fun dinner party, especially with the people you love and all your new recipes. How long has it been since you’ve had a chance to be together with your son? 

AN: We actually got together for his birthday on September 4th. I hadn’t seen him since Mother’s Day, and before that I saw him one time. So I’ve only seen him three times during the pandemic.

ANTHEA: Does your son live locally?

AN: He lives in Seattle, so not too far away.

That reminds me: This Fourth of July was an interesting day. For the last three years or so, I’ve gone to my son’s girlfriend’s parents’ house in Tacoma for a barbeque in their backyard. And this year by July 3rd, I still hadn’t heard whether they were having the barbeque or not. So I was sitting wondering, “If I were invited, would I go?” And I thought, “Well, I could go and socially distance and not eat anything [An chuckles …], then stay for maybe a half hour or something like that. The morning of the Fourth, my friend Lenny called. She asked if I had any plans and if I wanted to come to their place so we could have Mexican food. Then on the way to Lenny’s in Puyallup, I got a call from my son asking if I wanted to come to the barbeque. I said, “No, I’m on my way to Lenny and Zoom’s.” It was a much better thing for me to go to my friends’ because it’s much easier to social distance there. Finally, two weeks later my son said, “I called you late to invite you because I really didn’t want you to come. I didn’t want to expose you.” He apologized and I told him it was touching to me that he felt that way about it. My son works at the University of Washington Bookstore. He’s around a lot of people, so he worries about exposing me to Covid. 

ANTHEA: On a more philosophical note, if you could speak to a person in the future and share what you’ve experienced during the pandemic while sheltering in place — something that might help them understand what it has been like for you — what would you say? 

AN: Yes, a couple of things come to mind. I’ve missed my mom more during this pandemic than I have for several years. She died in 2013 and so I was over that big, big grief. I wanted to hold her hand. I wanted to talk to her when this pandemic thing first started. I had several friends say they were glad their mothers weren’t alive now because it would have been so hard for them. I thought it was interesting. That was so different from the way I was feeling.

Let’s see, another thing — I was being really hard on myself because I wasn’t doing anything. And by doing anything, I mean creating something. And that blockage I felt was almost wrenching. It had me by the shoulders, giving me an ache in my muscles there. I guess my advice would be to be easy on yourself. If you can do something, do it. If you can’t, accept that. The self-compassion class I took was hugely important for me. It helped me learn to treat myself as I would a close friend. The compassion that you want to show to others, it’s important to show that to yourself. 

ANTHEA: I love that, AN. Thank you for reminding me. It really is so important to be kind to ourselves. 

AN: Yes it is.

ANTHEA: AN, thank you so much for taking time to chat and share some of your thoughts and experiences with me. It really has been a pleasure and I’ll look forward to meeting up at The Grand Cinema when it’s safe to go to the movies again! 

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