Monday, October 31, 2005

Scare Me To Death

What is it about scary stories? Since it is Halloween today I’ve been thinking about that. When I was a kid I loved ghost stories. My Gram Werner was a great one for telling them, too. She had grown up on stories from the “old country”, Bavaria, and some of the scariest stories she told came from Der Schwarze Wald, the Black Forest, where her parents had been raised. She told tales about “hexes”, old women who could pet your cow and make it stop giving milk or scare the b’jesus out of kids playing outside too late in the evening.

My Grandfather Werner had a complete set of The Collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe and my brother Jack and I would crawl under the bed in my grandmother’s spare bedroom and read the scary ones to each other. I liked “The Black Cat”. He was partial to “The Pit and the Pendulum”.

When I was in high school scary movies were very popular. I remember being terrified by Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte but movies never scared me the way books did.

I remember well the first book I read as an adult that really scared me - I couldn’t put it down. It was The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and I thought Eleanor Vance, the lead character, was creepy. I went on to read all of Jackson’s. Though not as sensational, We Have Always Lived in the Castle proved to be one of the scariest books I ever read. I re-read it a few years ago to see if it still had the same power and was delightfully surprised to find it did. Merricat still gives me the chills.

Jackson was a very psychological writer. She knew that the scariest thing in all the world is the human mind and where it can take you. Her short story “The Lottery” still rings true with that horrible sense that "it could happen". In college I read Arthur Miller's The Crucibleand the psychological horror of that play is all the more terrifying because of the political climate in which it was written - one we would do well to pay attention to these days.

Later I discovered other great, terrifying reads - Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and Ghost Story by Peter Straub. The movies never did them justice. And then along came Stephen King with Carrie and Salem’s Lot both of which made my skin crawl. I loved every page. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes still lurks in the dark corners of my brain.

I don’t know what it is about being frightened that is so delicious. Maybe it is the illusion that we have some level of control over the scary stuff if it is contained between the pages of a book. Even while we are being terrified we know that “it’s just a book” and when we put it down everything will be alright again. Now, as an adult, I find the scariest things to be those things I know are, sadly, real. I loved Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca and it scared me but in my heart I knew there really wasn’t a Mrs. Danvers in my life. But when I read Denis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone and King’s Rose Madder they haunted me for days. They were too real and too far from anything I would ever have control over.

Halloween is a special time for me. I’m not one of those who dresses up and parties but I love the sense of mystery I feel at this time of the year. Years ago in Mexico I attended a Dios del Muerte celebration in a small village and I really understood, probably for the very first time, that the walls between the worlds is far thinner than we know. It is only our mindset that keeps that wall in place. And with that knowledge I realized there is very little there to fear. They are not the scary ones --- we are.

Happy Halloween.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 28, 2005

In the Presence of Masters

There is something very attractive about people who have achieved a high level of mastery of a skill. Americans are notoriously star struck by those who have achieved great success, whether in sports, entertainment, or the arts. Celebrity has its allure certainly, but there is something compelling, even seductive, about those who have mastered their craft and do it very, very well.

In 1975, as a student in the Department of Arts and Architecture at Penn State, I had the opportunity to participate in a summer program which paid homage and offered opportunities to attend classes with some remarkable artists. It was my first encounter with distinguished artists and it was transformative. During classes with Lee Krasner and Alice Neel I was very aware that these were people who had done something few can do - they gave full reign to their passions for art and they did not stop. Despite everything, and in their cases that included no small amount of gender bias, they kept going and succeeded.

Once I entered the working world, my painting suffered and, eventually, I gave it up. When I moved to Gloucester and became involved with the local art scene I heard about a program called Tithing Our Talents. Artists of distinction, particularly Betty Lou Schlemm, A.W.S., D.F., contributed their talent to teach anyone willing to pay for the classes to raise money for causes they believed in. Despite not having painted in close to 20 years, I signed up, bought watercolors and began to paint again. It was both exciting and frustrating.

For six years I participated in the Tithing Our Talents workshops and, as a board member of the North Shore Arts Association, helped organize the first Tithing Our Talents held there. It was an exciting experience. What always impressed me during these classes was the level of excitement and joy that the participants found in having the opportunity to work directly the distinguished artists who volunteered their time to teach, encourage, critique, and support. What I learned is that these people truly are remarkable, not only because they have attained a very high level of skill but because they love what they do so much that they want to support aspiring artists to the best of their ability. And their ability is considerable.

This week the NSAA sponsored its first Master Class Workshops. For three days the building was filled - packed - with the most enthusiastic participants imaginable who came, with their paints and their easels and notebooks and lunches, to spend a few days with distinguished artists. Despite a nor’easter that lashed the harbor with stinging rain and formidable winds, these painters poured into the building bubbling with excitement and enthusiasm.

The Masters themselves were a distinguished lot: Charles Movalli, Dale Ratcliff, Marilyn Swift, and Frank Federico. They began each day with a demonstration of their technique and then spent the rest of the day circulating among students helping them with their paintings. You could feel the excitement the minute you walked into the building. It was thrilling.

There is an expression noblesse oblige - “nobility imposes obligation”, if one is particularly gifted in any way there is an attendant responsibility to respect that gift by sharing it with others. The Master teaching this week, like those Masters who benefitted my life, are actively honoring that obligation and, therein, compounding the reasons they are so deserving of respect. It is a beautiful thing to be in the presence of.

Side Note: I was told yesterday that the portrait artist Lenice Strohmeier did of me that I wrote about in Encounters with My Face, has been awarded Second Place at the Beverly Guild of Artists current exhibition. Congratulations to Lenny for her accomplishment.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

There’s Writing and There’s WRITING

Gertrude Stein is famous for her line, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” It’s a good line. I’ve always liked it because to me it embodies the eternal beauty and “rose-ness” of roses. If you are a lover of roses, you understand it immediately. If not, it may seem absurd.

The same cannot be said of writing in my opinion. As someone who once taught others how to get their hand moving and get those words on the page, I have an understanding of how hard that can be. What I used to tell my students was, “First get it down, then make it pretty.” The second part of that sentence is a whole lot more demanding than the first.

I have a love/hate relationship with the whole New Age culture. On the one hand I like the acceptance, opening to new ideas, non-judgement, faith-infused quality of New Age thought. But where that way of thinking breaks down is in instilling a sense of responsibility and commitment to quality in its followers. That is not to say that there are not many New Age folks who aren’t responsible and committed to quality - there are. But I suspect they were that way to begin with.

As a writer who believes that writing is a sacrament - a joining with the Divine to Create - I have a lot of problems with people who think getting the words down on the page is the same as being a writer. In a sense, I suppose if you write then, yes, you are a writer but a serious writer never forgets the demands of craft.

Stephen King titled his wonderful autobiography/writing book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In King’s case this is particularly clever because of the allusion to what Wiccan’s call “The Craft”, so appropriate for the sorts of books King writes. King is a fascinating writer. Because his books are so creepy and sensational it is easy to overlook the fact that he is an amazing craftsman as a writer - no less amazing for the fact that he makes it look so easy. But he is a craftsman of the highest order who has honed his skills over thousands and thousands of written pages.

That’s where the difference lies - in re-writing, editing, polishing, tearing up, crossing out, screaming, throwing things away, starting over, going through the waste can and digging pages back out. That’s where the craft is, in taking pride in every line, in not wanting to show it to the world until it is beginning to work. Writers who spill their guts onto the page have found a great place to start but that’s where they need a sense of responsibility and commitment to their writing. It is in that sense of responsibility and commitment that a writer becomes a Writer.

Someone said to me, “You write from your head, that’s the difference between us - I write from my heart.” I won’t quibble with her assessment of where my writing comes from. I’ll leave that to my readers. But what I wanted to say to her is just because you have written something from your heart doesn’t mean you can’t make it better. Writing from one’s heart is no excuse for ignoring craft, for leaving those poor little words that you have birthed there on the page, naked and un-nurtured. If you want to keep your writing in your journal and to yourself that is fine and a good practice. Most writers have thousands of pages they will never show to the world. But if you plan to bring those babies out into the world then polish them up, apply the craft, make them pretty.

I always encourage people to write - get it down and out of your head, or your heart. Writing is one of the best therapies in the world. That kind of writing is healing and is often the seed of great things. But respect your words. If you are a writer who aspires to what Harlan Ellison calls “holy” you owe it to yourself and your readers to respect the craft.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

In the Dragon’s Lair

There is a dark side to human nature - we all have it. This is a sad-but-true fact of life. Whether you want to call it the “id”, blame it on the devil, or see it as a symptom of a dysfunctional childhood, the fact remains that everyone has their dark side. Writers have it, too, and often in closer proximity than other folks. We depend on it to write from - it is what makes our writing interesting.

But the dark side has a particularly nasty habit of turning on the one who harbors it. When I was in therapy years ago, and wrestling with my own dark side, my therapist asked me to “personify” it (that was a popular mode of therapy then - it was a good therapeutic technique for writers to learn though). At first I called it the Cobweb Lady and envisioned this crabby old lady wrapped up in cobwebs.

Several weeks into our sessions my therapist said, “I think there is something deeper here. I think the Cobweb Lady is only one component of the problem.” She was right. That was when I met the Dragon.

The Dragon was merciless. The Dragon was brutal and without pity and let nothing get by. The Dragon criticized every aspect of my behavior and every thought that came into my head. And the Dragon knew for sure that I had no business trying to write. It took a long time, but with my therapists help, I learned to keep the Dragon at bay so I could write - and live - anyway.

Over the years since then I have had periodic jousts with the Dragon. I think most people who want to accomplish anything in their lives do. There are really only three ways that anyone copes with their own Dragon: they pretend it doesn’t exist (not in them!) and turn it on other people in endless criticism and negativity; they surrender to it and waste their lives in addictions and self-defeating behaviors; or they learn to control it and use it wisely. Writing is good for the latter.

Artists of all sorts talk about battles with the Inner Critic, that little voice in your head that says, “Who the hell do you think you are to try to do this? You have no talent. Who cares what you have to say? What an arrogant ass you are! Just give everybody a break and shut up.” That’s the Dragon talking. It’s taken me awhile but I’ve learned to differentiate between the Inner Critic and the Dragon.

My Inner Critic can actually be pretty smart. Sometimes, when I have spent hours and hours laboring over a particular passage and am finally finished, or think I am, my Inner Critic will say, “I don’t know, that isn’t really working for me.” I don’t want to hear that! I’ve slaved over that piece. I’ve poured everything I’ve got into it. Shut up, you ugly beast, don’t tell me I’m no good!

But therein lies the difference. It is the Dragon who tells me that I am no good. The Inner Critic is the one who keeps the focus on my work and I need to stay mindful of that. Days later, when I read that work again, an annoying little part of me whispers, “That kind of stinks.” And usually it is right. The Inner Critic knew that. Now I have to do something about it.

The world can be a tough place. There are a lot of people who spend full time in the grip of their own Dragon and are always siccing it on others. No one has time for that kind of abuse. No one deserves it. And the Dragon that keeps us down is a beast that we need to conquer. But in the midst of all that we can’t lose touch with that little voice that says, “You can do better than that, you know.” The Dragon is nasty and wants to rip into me but the Inner Critic just wants what I do to be the best it can be and I have to stay mindful of the difference. It’s a big difference.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Windchill: Crime Stories for a Blustery Day

Okay, that’s not the real title. The real title is Windchill: Crime Stories by New England Writers. But — it’s here! I saw Susan Oleksiw yesterday and got several copies and spent most of last evening on the couch under a warm shawl, with a cup of tea and the book. It’s such fun!

I already wrote about my contribution to it in my blog Cooking Up Homemade Pie and Sausage but actually opening a really beautiful book and seeing it there among 21 other stories, turning to it and reading it IN A BOOK was so cool. Mark’s story, "Imprisoned in Maine", is also in the book and I turned to that next. Yup, just as much fun as I remembered it. Then I started at the front.

Even before I got involved with Level Best Books, first as their web master, then as a writer, I was an ambivalent mystery reader. That seems a strange thing to say for someone who grew up on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys - and Edgar Allen Poe. But, as an adult, I tended more toward more classic writing and literary fiction. When I chanced to read a mystery I usually liked it - I read most of Iain Pears and Ellis Peters - but it wasn’t something I sought out. Now, as I try to learn to write crime fiction, I find myself reading it more.

I was talking to my neighbor the other day who asked me to get a copy of Windchill for her. She asked me what my story was about and I said she had to read it, I didn’t want to spoil that, but that it was something that was totally out of character for me. That’s what the people who have read it keep saying to me - "that story is so different from all your other stuff!" Well, yes and no.

My fiction writing tends to be very sensory, something that readers either love or avoid. Clearly I write for the former. When I wrote "Homemade Pie and Sausage" I had to be careful with that because the ending would be a bit hard to take if the reader was too involved in the world I was creating. But to was fun to do.

Last night, as I read four of the stories in the book, I was struck by the difference in style and approach by the writers. The book opens with Brendan DuBois’ "The Forever Reunion" which won the Al Blanchard Award for Short Fiction. It is a beautifully crafted story with faint shivers throughout and a heart-breaking ending. The guy writes well. The second story, "Feral" by Margaret Press, really kept my attention. I skipped around a bit after that and read a couple more stories but I don’t want to rush through them. Reading short stories should be like eating chocolates - it is best to exercise restraint.

So, Windchill is here and just in time for a stretch of weather that looks to be good for reading if not much else. Level Best is trying to get it into local bookstores as soon as possible. Distribution has become and issue for a lot of small presses and that makes it hard to promote books until you are sure there are books available in the stores. But you can order it right away through their web site.

The weather folks say we are in for a nor’easter and the coming winter looks long and cold so order your book and curl up for a good read.

Let me know if you want my mincemeat pie recipe...

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 24, 2005

What the Well-Bred Blog is Wearing

In my three short months of blogging I have been amazed and pleased at the power of this particular medium. In a sense Blogs are today what web sites were 8 or 10 years ago. As people get more and more comfortable using cyber-space as an information, education and business medium (most people are already pretty comfortable with it as an entertainment medium), blogs are gaining power in their ability to attract attention.

A lot of people like active content. Web sites are good but, unless there is a reason to return to them on a regular basis, they can be easily forgotten. Blogs, particularly blogs attached to web sites, solve that problem. In three months this blog has more than tripled the traffic on my sites and has developed a regular - and growing - following. I am humbled and grateful!

Consequently, there are now web sites that publish guidelines and tips for creating successful blogs. One that I read recently is Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox. In it he gives tips and tricks on how to use sites and blogs, etc. Since I am now a convert to the blog universe and its power I decided to follow a few of his guidelines.

Expanding my biography was hard. Originally I had just put “Read my blog, that will be more than you want to know” which was sufficiently flippant and vague for me. However, I can see his point. If I am going to keep writing posts about writing, design, and art, it certainly is understandable that people reading would want to know my background for being such a blowhard. Updating my picture to one taken a couple months ago was easy enough and, in typical fashion, I couldn’t resist funking it up a bit - I am, after all, primarily a digital artist.

When I check the stats pages of my web hosting service, which I do nearly every day, I can see which posts are being read the most, which are being linked to from another source, which are being bookmarked, and fed to other sites. It stands to reason these posts have an appeal and should not be buried forever in the archives so making a “classic hits” section makes perfect sense. I am working on that.

Similarly defining subject matter is important. Without a sense of what the blog is about, readers will get confused and lose interest, Nielsen says. I write mostly about books, writing and the writing life but add in blogs about other arts, life in Gloucester (a town steeped in the arts), and knitting. One of the things that has impressed me since starting this is how many knitters are also writers. I get a lot of email about that and it makes perfect sense to me. Knitting is a form of active meditation that is perfect for writers who need time to let their brains run wild.

Finally, there is the advice to stay aware of the quality of content. Unlike message boards and discussion groups, blogs are not appropriate places for flaming. Flamers need to be deleted as soon as they show up. But, more importantly, there is the need to stay aware of one’s own presence. Nielsen says “write as though you are writing for your next boss” - or, as my mother used to say, “Behave yourself, people are looking at you!” Blogs can serve a lot of purposes and they vary in quality as much as anything else does. But using a blog to establish a presence, build credibility, and reach out to a particular audience requires standards of behavior - something the internet, and society in general, cannot help but benefit by.

So, gradually, I am learning how to do this. It is absolutely fascinating. More than anything I am appreciative of the people who take time in their day to stop by here for a minute or two and read what I have to say. They are my inspiration to keep improving.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

A Good Sunday for Knitting

It is HORRIBLE outside! Cold, rainy, windy. The waves along the back shore are huge and crashing up onto the road. Not a fit day out for man nor beast, as my Dad always liked to say. So, of course, the surfers are having a ball. I was just out at Good Harbor Beach watching them. Yeah, they’re nuts but they are so cute.

But it’s a good day for knitting talk and I have a couple projects that I want to post so I whimped out and came home where it is warm and there is plenty of hot tea.

I finished my cute Cornflower Beret. I made it using two skeins of Knit Pick’s Ambrosia, a scrumptious alpaca and cashmere yarn that is meltingly soft and very, very warm. The pattern is based loosely on one I downloaded from the Lion’s Branc site but I added the cables and it is very cute. And warm. And soft. Now I’ve started a second one in Knit Pick’s Elegance alpaca/silk yarn in Wild Rose.

The current shawl on the needles is also a triangle based on my very favorite Garter and Lace Shawl from Knitter’s Scarves and Shawls. I am making this one with Knit Picks 100% Pima cotton Crayon in Pink (can you tell I like Knit Picks yarns?) I have a long way to go on this because I want it to be a generous shawl that will wrap well but still be light enough for spring and summer evenings. But I’m really happy with how the lace stitches are working together. I started out with an interesting, raised butterfly stitch that I kept for 20 inches before transforming it into the Razorback Shell stitch from Interweave Knit’s Traditional Lace Shawls. I’m not sure what it will turn into next but I am really enjoying working on this one.

Finally, I am very pleased to report I screwed up big time and then found a way to fix it! I had a large cone of deep black cashmere from Robin and Russ Handweavers that I have been dying to do something with. I decided on a long stole knit simply in the popular Arches Lace pattern. It worked up beautifully and is wonderfully soft and warm BUT I made a bad choice - instead of knitting it widthwise I knit it lengthwise. The problem was it stretched lengthwise way too much leaving me with a shawl that was half as wide and twice as long as I needed it to be. I was about in tears when I got an idea - turn it into a cocoon!

I lay it out full length and then folded the short ends up at an angle and wove them to one lengthwise edge leaving a space of four inches for the back of the neck. I then crocheted all around the remaining edge in a pretty shell stitch. I then picked up the stitches around the sleeve openings and knitted in the round until they were narrow enough to add cuffs using a simple K2P2 ribbing. It is wonderful! I wore it last night with a pair of black velvet trousers and a white silk shirt and it was both beautiful and warm. I love solutions like this!!!

Well, my literary advisor has informed me that I have to sort through my blog entries and separate them into categories. There are, it seems, rules about successful blogging and I am misbehaving. I have updated my photo to one taken this summer, expanded my bio, and now have to organize my posts. Sigh.

I’d rather be knitting......

Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 21, 2005


This has been quite a year for chicks with attitude when it comes to storms. In the hours before Katrina it was hard to imagine that she could do the amount of damage that she did. When waiting for Rita to hit, having just watched the devastation by Katrina, it was excruciating and, while she certainly kicked the heck out of certain areas, the areas where my friends lived went virtually untouched.

I called my friend Sharon in Houston a few days after Rita had passed by. She had driven to Dallas with a car full of cats and, being a savvy, life-long Texan, she missed most of the traffic. When she returned home in Houston’s Meyerland a few days later, having waited out the storm at her sister’s home, she was happy to find that her house was just fine and there weren’t even any leaves or branches down worth mentioning.

So now we are waiting for Wilma. I have been checking on the weather sites and playing CNN weather videocasts from time to time and the weather folks are doing their best to get people to get the heck out of the way.

There is a weather guy I hear on the radio every day that I get a chuckle out of. This has been quite a year for him. On the one hand he’s a decent, concerned, compassionate human being and he doesn’t want to see people losing their homes, families and lives BUT, on the other hand, he’s a WEATHER man - weather is his medium. You can imagine that he has spent his entire education and career thinking about the Coming-of-the-Big-One. And this is the year he has been waiting for all his life. Can anybody fault him for that trembling note of excitement that creeps into his voice then he starts talking about millibars and barometric shifts and the intensification of the wind? As storms go this has to be the Pulitzer Prize of weather events. Can you blame a guy for getting fired up?

I suppose that’s the way it always is - in the midst of any natural disaster there has to be some sense of awe at the magnitude, the sheer colossal power of such things. It is why people scale mountains and chase tornados. There is something so awe-inspiring about a thing that has absolutely no interest in our individual, human lives that is really compelling.

Here in Gloucester we know a thing or two about storms. I have been on the beach or down at the fish pier enjoying the sunshine and the beauty of the day only to look up and see something very black and scary creeping into the sky from the horizon. (Photos above and left were taken on an evening this summer from the state fish pier. It was a beautiful evening when I looked up to see the cloud behind City Hall above and within minutes the harbor was churning and the black clouds in the other two photos swept by. The whole event happened in minutes.)

In his book Mark talks about squalls and micro-bursts that came out of nowhere, lasted but a few minutes and moved out to sea in minutes leaving shredded sails, smashed lobster gear, and wrecked boats in its wake. He tells the story of quiet day on the water when he was hauling traps. One got “rocked down”, a term fishermen use for a trap that has become attached to something on the bottom of the ocean and won’t come up. He was half out of the boat, trying to yank the thing free when he looked up to see a “freaker” (fishermen, I have been informed, do NOT like the term “rogue wave”) headed straight at him.

It’s a hell of a story.

So now we wait for Wilma which is headed for Florida nad could well bounce its way up the coast. I have a writer friend who always says “no experience is wasted if you get a good story out of it.”

Oh well.....

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

A Fine Yarn

Growing up in the Allegheny Highlands of Pennsylvania with a first-generation Bavarian grandmother, I heard a lot about frugality and thrift. That’s a good lesson to learn and one in need of more emphasis these days. There was a popular axiom, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

One of my Gram Werner’s primary occupations was mending. Her little old black Singer sewing machine sat in her small pink bedroom under a window from which she could keep an eye on the neighborhood and, next to it, was a massive, and constantly growing pile of mending. Mostly my brothers’s blue jeans but other things as well.

Gram had lost her husband when she was in her thirties and she raised four daughters, and also a nephew, on her own working the night shift in a carbon plant. Money was scarce and she learned to conserve. When she taught me to crochet and do needlework we always worked with yarns and threads that could be purchased at Murphy’s, the local 5 and 10, and everything was chosen with an eye toward durability and thrift. It was how she survived.

Those were good lessons but it took me a big chunk of my adult life to realize there was a considerable trade-off between thrift and quality. It has only been in the last fifteen years that I’ve been able to allow myself to buy fine fibers and fabrics for their beauty alone. However, having learned that lesson, I seem to be making up for lost time. My yarn stash has been growing happily and, while I certainly knit at every opportunity, my ability to buy has definitely out distanced my ability to produce. I don’t begrudge myself the yarns because I do use them and they are generally transformed into exquisite items - scarves, shawls, and other useful things - that make valued presents for people I love.

But I do love a new source for my treasures! Recently I found a vendor on eBay who imports yarns from Russia and sells them at prices even Gram would approve of. I purchase a few skeins of the 50% wool/50% angora to test the quality before going wild. It arrived and the colors are gorgeous but the texture was nice but not what I had imagined. Someone on the Knitted Lace List pointed out that in Russia what is referred to as “angora” is what we would call “mohair”. That made more sense. The yarn is still a good value and wool/mohair is actually better for lace-making than wool/angora. So I’m content.

But I’ve been sorting through the stash and have come up with a few treasures I am in the process of trying to envision a use for. The primary one is three, substantial hanks of 100% silk noil yarn purchased from Blue Heron some years back when, it would seem, they were still experimenting with fibers. I originally had four of them but one, a deep purple-blue, was combined with a luscious violet English mohair to make a beautiful shawl that is still folded in the closet awaiting a home. I need to photograph that and post it.

Another find - and I honestly don’t remember when I purchased these - is two large hanks of 50% wool/50% silk from Lorna’s Laces in a deep, pretty color called “Blackberry”. It must have been purchased it from Patternworks when they were still in Poughkeepsie because that is what the bag they are in says. I stopped there several times when driving back and forth ot Pennsylvania.

I love these fibers. I just placed another order from Knit Picks and another from Handpainted Yarns. I don’t know what I’ll make with these beauties but someday someone will have a long, luscious scarf or luxurious shawl to keep them warm. And I know they will last maybe even for another generation.

So, Gram, thanks for all you taught me. I wish you were still here so I could wrap you up in a cashmere shawl. It would help you keep warm while you do your mending.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Stays Against Confusion

I am once again reading, for the heaven-knows how many-th time, Ron Hansen’s A Stay Against Confusion, in my opinion one of the best books ever written about writing fiction. Like many fiction writers I used to spend a lot of time wondering what the point of writing a certain story was. Which led to wondering what the point of writing at all was. Hansen finally helped me to understand that.  He is a wonderful writer. I read his novel Desperados years ago and absolutely loved it. It wasn’t the sort of fiction I usually read - about Emmett Dalton and the infamous Dalton Gang - but it is so richly written and full of color, texture and detail that I remember thinking if the author could make me love a book about that strange subject as much as I loved that book he must be a really good writer.

Over the years I read each Hansen book as it came out. His 1991 novel Mariette in Ecstasy is still one of my favorite books for its beauty of language and sensory lushness. Then, after I started writing fiction myself and had acquired shelves full of books on writing, I discovered A Stay Against Confusion: Fourteen Essays on Faith and Fiction. It was a joyous discovery.

Hansen, I learned, is the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor in the Arts and Humanities at a Jesuit College. I should have known. Being a Catholic whose writing has been formed by the sensory intoxication, the honor given to the arts, and the continual awareness of the presence of God, the traditional Catholic Church gave us, I should have recognized a fellow.

Hansen took the title of his book from a preface written by Robert Frost in which he described poetry as being a momentary “stay against confusion”. He then goes on to develop the idea that fiction, like faith and like poetry, is such a stay. We live in a baffling world where people do unimaginable things and sometimes chaos seems like the only god. Faith, that beautiful gift that is so treasured by those who have it and so maligned by those who do not, is one way that a chaotic world begins to make sense. Fiction is another.

It is popular among some people to proudly proclaim, “Oh, I never read fiction!” The implication being that fiction, being “not true” is unworthy of their valuable attention. But what these people can’t grasp is that there is often far greater truth in fiction for one simple reason, it puts us in touch with universal truths that touch us all. That is something that non-fiction cannot do.

Good fiction makes order of chaotic ideas. Good fiction lets us remove ourselves from the immediate and contemplate the bigger picture. Good fiction is like faith - it pulls us out of our self-absorption and smugness and opens our minds and hearts to truths beyond our own limited world.

Faith, like fiction, gets a bad rap in a lot of areas these days. I’m fairly shocked by all the carrying-on about “faith-based” initiatives by some folks. What a misuse of language! As near as I can tell a lot of those people use the word “faith” as an inflexible, unyielding, dead concept that limits understanding. Faith is an active word requiring growth, expanding awareness, opening to new ideas and endless willingness to accept new realities to keep it alive. Faith never excludes but rather embraces.

Fiction writing, when done well, is a form of faith. It is a belief that together we - the writer and the reader - can understand realities beyond our own. Learning this changed the way I write. Now instead of thinking the premise of a story is too challenging, I think it is an opportunity to see something with new eyes. Hansen has done that for me again and again. May I be as skillful.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Not Writing = Stress!

I’ve got another injury. This time it is my right foot. I don’t know what I did to it but it hurts like hell and I’ve been limping for two days now. I realized some years back, when I go through periods like this where I am injuring myself repeatedly - first a wrenched knee, then a flare up of tendinitis, then a severely stubbed toe - it is because I’m harboring a lot of stress in my body and I deal with it by causing real pain. And maybe, too, it’s my body’s way of trying to tell me to stay still for awhile.

I’m having trouble writing at the moment. Normally I spend an hour a day before I start work on whatever bit of writing I am involved with. If I get to spend more time on it in the evening, that is good but that hour in the morning is important.

Right now I am trying to rewrite the last of the eight stories for my collection, My Last Romance & Other Passions. I’ve gotten positive feedback on the other stories so far but this last one is confounding me. I blame it on the fact that it is the first time I have ever written much about my heritage but I think it is more than that, Fifi, the central character, is someone I used to be and I don’t like thinking about that.

Fiction writing is a very intimate process. I wonder how many fiction writers are able to remain emotionally distant from their work. Certainly those writers, like mystery writers, who rely on stock characters and plots that follow a particular form have an easier time. But those of us who write out of our experiences in life, each time we get close to the bone, it can get raw, let me tell you.

I didn’t have a tragic childhood. For a long time I thought that disqualified me from success as a writer. Later I realized that success was not the point - writing was. Writer/psychotherapist Otto Rank, who had a horrifically tragic childhood, wrote, “I must give birth everyday or perish.”

Those of us who harbor that need to create - to put something forth into the world on a regular basis - die a little bit when we are not doing so. Traditionally there has been a parallel between creativity and substance abuse. I was never sure if that was because painful pasts tend to incline people toward the arts as well as toward substance abuse. But now I know that if you are driven to create on a regular basis you must do it or suffer the consequences. For me that is a peculiar string of ridiculous but painful physical injuries.

Sometimes I think writing is a form of masochism anyway. First you spend hour after hour alone wrestling with both the words on the page and your personal demons. Then you ask trusted friends to read and give opinions so you can rewrite. This is a tough process if your friends are really honest with you. Lots of them can’t be, they are too accepting of you as you are. It is difficult to find readers who are both honest and lacking agendas.

After all of that you go through the endless submission-rejection process. Then, if you publish, there are the critiques and the responses of readers. It doesn’t matter how many people tell you that your work is good, one scathing review can undo all of that.

Recently I gave my first novel to an accomplished writer whose novels have won awards and whose work I admire. She read the book in a few days and was filled with praise. She said I was a “fine writer” and she loved much of the book. But she completely misunderstood the ending - COMPLETELY. Her interpretation blew me away! I was in no way prepared for how she saw it. Fortunately enough people have read it and liked the ending that I don’t think it was a fault of my writing but her reaction unnerved me.

So I am sitting here with a sore foot and an incomplete manuscript and a bunch of work to do. I want to just blow off work and go sit in the sun and read. Except there is also no sun. It’s a tough day to be a writer....

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Heathcliff in Gloucester

Something strange is going on. I’ve got two books going at the moment - an audiobook and one on the page - and, though they were written a hundred years apart and by two very different authors, I am finding a strange synchronicity with them.

I am listening to the audiobook of Emily Bronte’s classic Wuthering Heights while I work or cook or knit in the evenings. I read it many years ago and back then I got all caught up in the tragic romance of Heathcliff and Catherine and didn’t pay much attention to the rest. This time around I am a little stunned to discover that their romance actually comprises very little of the book. She’s dead before the book is half over. What the book is really about is a whole bunch of broken lives stuck in the same dismal place with very little awareness of where they are headed. Heathcliff, far from being the tragic hero, is a really nasty, manipulative, devious human being set on a path of vengeance for the wrongs done him as a child and the loss of Catherine, the only person who loved him. She, however, comes a cross as a screwball torn between the lure of glitter and fun and her love for Heathcliff. This is not a romance to emulate.

The other book that I am reading is Peter Anastas’s Broken Trip which is also about a bunch of broken lives stuck in the same dismal place with very little awareness of where they are headed. It is not an easy book to read particularly because the characters that populate its pages are people I see every day and whose lives both fascinate and repel me. Broken lives - how did they get so lost? Anastas writes with authority. He was a director at Action, Gloucester’s anti-poverty program, for a lot of years. His book is painful, filled with abuse, stupidity, bad choices, tragic wrongs. His writing is terse, blunt, lacking ornamentation and yet there is an underlying compassion for these people and a sense that, if they’d only stopped and thought instead of acting out of their pain, everything could have been so different.

This morning I read a heart-breaking story titled “Joe Skag”. It touched me more because it is about men I see every day - those lined up outside the homeless shelter waiting for the doors to open, those in St. Peter’s Park trying to score or wasted or just waiting, waiting waiting. Joe Skag is a junkie who was a great fisherman. In the story his heroin addiction and HIV have worn him down to a useless man living in homeless shelters and waiting to die. He gets coerced into make one last fishing trip which brings in a fine haul and, with the profit, he intends to go to his sister in Florida for one last chance at some peace before he dies. It is a heart-breaking story.

As I thought about Joe and about Heathcliff I thought they were not so very different. Heathcliff is young and strong and has limitless potential but he is an angry man steeped in bitterness. Joe is old now but he was once young and a good fisherman. But he couldn’t hang on to anything. As the fishing industry declined through government regulation he lost his great love - fishing and the sea. The loss and the attendant idleness set him on a destructive path.

I wondered if Heathcliff had lived in Gloucester if we wouldn’t find him hanging out in St. Peter’s Park shooting up to forget the pain of losing Cathy, standing in line at the shelter waiting for a place to sleep. The difference between Heathcliff and Joe is really very little. But then the difference between Joe and all of us is surprisingly little. The moral of these stories are the same - bad things happen and we find ourselves broken. How we deal with that is up to each of us.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Stuff II

More unrelated but moderately interesting stuff:

• The Hovey House Writer's Group of Gloucester has finally (at last, at last) scheduled our next meeting. It will be on Wednesday, October 26 at 7pm at beautiful Hovey House (click on link for directions). This is the third year for this group and we will begin with an Open Mike Night. Participants may bring original work to read (please limit your selection to 5-10 minutes). I have also spoken with John Ronan of television's The Writer's Block and with Webster Bull of Commonwealth Editions and they have expressed interest in being present for discussions at future meetings. There is no charge for this event. Refreshments will be served but you are invited to bring a treat to share. This group can be fairly large so plan to come early. Contact me for more details.
• The Sawyer Free Library & Lyceum, one of my very favorite places in Gloucester, will present a program on October 19 at 7 in the main library. Photographer Don Hults will speak about Leonard Craske, the sculptor of Gloucester's famous Man At the Wheel statue. All are invited.
• This week marks the release of Windchill: Crime Stories by New England Writers from Level Best Books. The third entry in this award winning series of crime fiction contains the story that was the winner of this year's Al Blanchard Crime Fiction Award which will be announced at the New England Mystery Writer's Annual Crime Bake. This volume features 22 stories -- by notable and new authors.
Gloucester is represented with stories by three local writers: Skye Alexander, Mark S. Williams, and me. The book will be available in local bookstores, through the Level Best web site and also from Amazon.
• Much to my surprise, I have received many emails asking for instructions to knit the Mermaid Shawl I designed! The problem is, I have no ability whatsoever to read patterns which is why I make them up. However, a couple of knitters on the Knitted-Lace List have offered to help by testing out the pattern as I attempt to write it. I will keep those interested posted...
• So far I have not mentioned other blogs very much, though I intend to do so at some point. But I want to put in a plug for Supreme Court Nominee Harriet Meirs' Blog. I have no idea if she is qualified to be a Supreme Court Judge (and I have serious reservations about her opinions about GWB) but her blog is a riot. One thing I know is Washington could use her sense of humor. Check it out at Harriet Miers's Blog!!! The woman uses more exclamation points than I do!

Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Good Morning. My Name is Kathleen and I’m a Stashaholic...

My mother was extremely good at making pickles, preserves, jams and conserves. From the time first produce started coming up from Dad’s garden or from the local farm stands through the last, she was on a mission to fill up every Mason jar she could get her hands on. It was a beautiful thing to walk into her canning closet and see the row after row of canned tomatoes, home-made sauerkraut, pickles, peppers, relishes and jams.

One day, while we were working on a batch of something she sighed, “I feel like a squirrel sometimes.” I laughed. “Seriously,” she said, “like I’m constantly trying to hoard away enough nuts to get us through the winter. We’re all gonna starve! We’re all gonna starve!” That’s it - it’s here fault!

What IS this obsession with having so much stuff??? I’ve long prided myself on not being particularly acquisitive where contemporary gadgets are concerned. I never feel the urge to run out and buy entertainment or convenience toys - I have no idea what a Tivo even is and I have yet to own a microwave. But when it comes to fabric and fibers...... Lord have mercy.

There is an email that gets passed around the internet from time to time - Twelve Steps for Fabric Aholics - “We admitted we were powerless over fabric, that our stashes had become unmanageable.” It’s humorous but not far from the truth. I have three great stash weaknesses - fabric, yarn, and, incongruently, bath products. I may not have a potato peeler but I have enough bath oil to soothe the dry skin of an entire southern state.

Right now I am trying to organize my fabric stash and clean up my sewing room so I can spend cold winter evenings making pretty things. As I go through the endless packages of fabric I wonder what dreams I held in my brain (ha!) The day I bought this or that piece of fabric. Often times I will buy something just because it is very unique, because I’ve never seen anything like it before and know I can make something very original out of it. My friends are no help! They keep giving me things saying, “I bought this ten years ago and could never decide what to make with it. I know you’ll think of something.”

One friend who used to work for a museum gave me a very small package that contained yards and yards and yards of fabulous silk. She bought it at an auction of Chinese imports in New York and finally decided I could think of something because she couldn’t. A few years ago while in Puerto Plata I discovered a fabric shop that sold 100% silk for an ungodly low price. I wound up having to buy an extra suitcase for my flight home.

These days, intimidated by my fabric stash, I have turned to yarn acquisition instead. It started with eBay. I don’t even want to think about how much money I spent on silk and cashmere and mohair yarns when I discovered what I could buy them for there. Recently I found a vendor who sells 50% angora/50% wool from Russia for a fabulous price. Several packages are on their way to me now.

Knit Picks is no help and recently I discovered Handpainted Yarn. ENOUGH ALREADY!!!!

What is this? Unlike my mother I’m not worried about starving. Actually, starving might be good. Think how great I’d look in silk if I starved over the winter. But it’s that drive to make something beautiful and soft and luscious. It’s an irresistible urge. I see lovely colors, I imagine how those fibers would feel passing through my fingers as I worked on them and - bam! - more stash!

Well, business is good these days and I have a small surplus right now. Maybe my stash is, in some strange way, my measure of accomplishment. Wonder what’s new on eBay.....

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Lame Duck

Six years ago when I was invited onto the Board of Trustees at the North Shore Arts Association I couldn’t figure out what in the heck they wanted me for. I got a degree in art a million years ago and painted in oils for a few years until I decided to give up smoking. For some reason I couldn’t paint when I wasn’t smoking. Maybe it was just my body’s way of telling me that one activity was as non-productive as the other. At the time, that was true.

Years later, when I moved to Gloucester and began taking watercolor classes with Betty Lou Schlemm, I saw a significant improvement in my work but I realized a sad truth: I didn’t get the satisfaction out of painting that I wished I did. I would watch other people paint, totally absorbed and enchanted by what they were doing, and I envied them. But, for me, the passion to paint wasn’t there.

Later, after taking workshops with Sandra Saitto and Lynn Loscutoff, I got interested in mixed media and that became a more productive medium for me. I’m an eclectic person with a love of texture and surface design and I found a lot of excitement in playing with different mediums. Through all of this, I continued to write and to earn a living as a designer.

Ultimately you come to a point in your life where you realize that, for now, you just don’t have enough hours in the day for everything that you want to do. I have to design to pay the bills and I love designing. I have to write. Period. Painting, however, I could let go of.

But I had been elected to the Board of Trustees of the NSAA and that seemed an awesome responsibility for someone who wasn’t sure she was an artist. For my first couple years on the board I had no idea what I was doing there. Because I have a background in print media, I became the Chair of their Publications Committee and from there took over the web site. I went to meetings faithfully, I listened to talk about the hundreds of issues that are concerned in running such an institution but I often wondered what good my being there was.

The North Shore Arts Association is one of the oldest and most distinguished arts associations in the country. It was founded in 1923 and its building is a huge old livery overlooking Smith’s Cove and the Gloucester skyline. I am shamelessly proud of having served on the board there these past six years.

Last night was my next-to-last meeting as a Board member. I’m a lame duck now. In the Association by-laws, terms of service are limited to six years and I’ve served mine. Suddenly it seems there is so much that I still need to do.

In my six years I have witnessed incredible transformations. Our building looks beautiful - the floors have been resurfaced and polished to a high gleam, the walls have been carpeted, track lighting installed, heaters, ceiling fans, exhaust fans are now helping to make the building more comfortable. The basement is being refurbished and a vault installed. These are all the sorts of things that need to be done and it doesn’t take an artist to do it. The web site has been my own contribution and it has turned into a highly-useful, attractive tool that sees an amazing amount of traffic. I’m so proud of all that has been accomplished.

So next month will be my last meeting as a Trustee. I will stay on as Web Master and Chair of Publications and Publicity. I’ll serve on the committees for the upcoming exhibitions for the New England Watercolor Society and the American Watercolor Society. But what I know now is, they didn’t need me as much as I needed them. The NSAA has enriched my life immeasurably. I still don’t feel the urge to paint but when I look at that building, and the web site and the display case filled with catalogs I have designed, I am so grateful to them for electing me to their Board. The NSAA has made me realize that I am an artist - whether I go back to painting or not.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Painting God’s Knuckle

Every writer goes through this. You meet someone, you are at a party or in a restaurant, and someone says, “I hear you’re a writer.” Yes. And then they say they have a fabulous story to tell but they need someone to write it for them. The story is incredible, they assure you, but they don’t know how to write. So if they tell you the story and you write it for them, then they will split the fortune it makes with you.

It happens all the time. They launch into this long story about the grandfather who fell overboard while fishing in the Mediterranean and swam 20 miles to a port where they signed on a ship and sailed to America, the beautiful mother who worked as a tavern maid in Ireland but was such a beauty that a men came from miles and miles hoping to attract her favors. Sometimes the stories happened to them - a horrific childhood (though the way those books sell today, I might jump at that one) or a remarkable career. They assure you people would buy it by the tens of thousands.

When that happens to me I always tell them they should start by writing it down themselves. “Oh,” they say, “but I can’t write.” Can you you write out a check? How do you pay your bills? Just write down what you told me. “I can’t,” they say. “That’s what I need you for.”

In Bonnie Friedman’s book Writing Past Dark she tells a wonderful parable that her husband made up one time. A young painter goes to Michelangelo and says, “I have seen your paintings and they are glorious, please teach me to paint the soul. I’ll pay you anything but I want to learn to paint the soul.” Michelangelo considers this and then tells the young man, “Go home and practice painting God’s knuckle. Practice until you can paint the shape and form, the texture of the skin, the fine web of veins beneath the skin, the muscle and bone beneath that. When you have succeeded in painting God’s knuckle then I will be able to teach you to paint the soul.”

This is an impressive story and I have been thinking about it a lot. Its message is simple - learn your craft. Whatever your craft is, you must work at it, learn it thoroughly, not be afraid to make mistakes, not be intimidated by failure. Just stop all the fuss, sit down, shut up, and learn your craft.

Back when I taught writing I didn’t so much teach writing per se as teach people to put the pen to the paper and get their hand moving. That was my method. I used a combination of discussion, guided visualizations, and then just put that pen on that piece of paper and keep your hand moving until I say stop. It was a remarkable learning experience for me. I was dumbfounded at the reasons people could find for not doing that. They would ask endless questions, they would object to my telling them what to do (if you don’t want to do what I am telling you to do why are you paying to take this class?) It was amazing.

I had one student that, even after all these years, remains a favorite. She was a little overwhelming when she first joined the class - you could smell her perfume when she got out of her car and the classroom hardly seemed big enough to accommodate her big hair, pushed-up breasts, and towering high heels. But she LOVED the class. She would put her pen on the paper, grinning from ear to ear, and write and write and write. When it came time to read, her hand was the first in the air. She would stand up and proudly read the most god-awful schlock I had ever heard. And she was thrilled with it.

I remember her for two reasons - one, she loved writing. She loved it! She practiced and practiced and practiced. And, two, she has since sold three romance novels to a popular romance press. I tried reading them - I can’t. But lots of people can and she is having a ball.

Learn your craft. Paint God’s knuckle. Who knows, maybe there are collectors just dying to add to their knuckle portrait collections.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Orientalists

Years ago, when I was young and energetic, I signed up for belly-dancing classes at a dance studio in Houston. It was the beginning of a romance of grand proportions. I loved everything about the experience - the dancing, the costumes, the music, the perfume that filled the studio, the artwork on the walls. Our teacher was a great proponent of traditional ethnic dance and, though she taught the kitschier cabaret-style as well, she loved the dance and the costumes indigenous to the art.

During that time I collected a lot of books about danse oriental. Most of them were filled with paintings from an earlier era that were both, brilliant and lavish depicting a world of such rich beauty and monumental architecture that it fascinated me. I purchased a couple posters of paintings by Jean-Leon Gerome but that was as much as I knew about the art.

Last night the North Shore Arts Association hosted a lecture and slide presentation by Kristian Davies about his new book, The Orientalists. Davies had previously written an admirable and comprehensive book, Artists of Cape Ann: A 150 Year Tradition which I own and appreciate. But this new book is as rich and sumptuous as the world it illuminates.

Davies did a wonderful job of bringing this world alive. His slides were interspersed with maps of the region he spoke of beginning in Morocco and moving east through Algeria, Sudan, Tunisia and Egypt, up through the countries of the Middle East then on through the central Asian “Stans” - Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan - and on into Pakistan and India. For each country he showed slides of the paintings done by the brave explorer/painters who traveled into these areas creating, in many cases, the only visual record in existence of life there in the late eighteenth century.

One of the most seductive aspects of these paintings for me is the astonishing textiles that the painters rendered so lovingly in their work. At a time when painting was realistic, the time and craft involved in the paintings of costumes, hangings, rugs and awnings is just stunning. Through the slides shown Davies took us into marketplaces and bazaars, through palaces and the tops of towers overlooking vast cities, to caravan encampments and into battle. All brilliantly and magnificently recorded by artists who had the courage to venture into that world.

When Napoleon marched into Africa in the late eighteenth century, Europeans became aware, for the first time in many cases, of a world that rivaled theirs for its sophistication, architecture and elegance. I can only imagine what a shock that world must have been to the Europeans who traveled there. Today, with television and the internet, the world is so much more accessible. But 200 years ago? What must Europeans have thought when those first paintings were exhibited? In one painting we see a harbor filled with huge ships displaying sails of gigantic proportion and decidedly un-European in design. In others we see fabulous architecture - mosques and palaces, gateways and walls to rival anything in Europe. How thrilling they must have been to paint!

Most poignant of all the paintings were those done 200 years ago in Iraq. They show a world of such stunning beauty that is almost painful to view in light of what is going on in Iraq even now. Looking at those paintings you cannot help but think there is something very, very wrong when a world once so beautiful becomes so sad.

Kristian Davies has written a magnificent book. It is a tribute to his talent and a major contribution to both the literary world and the art world. And his lecture was a treat. An opportunity to slip out of the world of today and into a world of lushness and heart-breaking beauty.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

A Cold & Rainy Sunday

This is the day when you know summer is over and autumn is here. It happens every year - the date changes. But there is that one day when you wake up and it is cold and you know it won’t be warming up much. We’ve been lucky this year - it was a beautiful summer and September was just as nice. But today it is raining and 51 and autumn is here.

Yesterday was our Needleworker’s Day which I love. We were a small group - so much going on these days! But somehow when the group is small the talk is always more lively. We manage to keep to one conversation instead of several and I don’t wind up with the befuddlement that always sets in when I’m trying to listen to too many people.

Chandra, who makes the world’s best calzone - this month she brought spinach and pepperoni, brought the Christmas stockings she has been working on to show. She got the pattern from the Lion’s Brand web site and made them in a deep, burgundy topped with white. They are, frankly, adorable. Florence is making another of her long, lush, scrumptious scarves - this time in a gorgeous blush pink. She works at Gorton’s of Gloucester and brought us lobster rolls as a special treat. Gwen, who knits in the English manner with a needle held under her arm, is working on winter head bands in gorgeous, complex Faire Isle patterns. Maureen is making crocheted, beaded bracelets. And on and on.

Having finished my Mermaid Shawl (which garnered plenty of ohhs and ahhs) I am mostly experimenting right now. I bought a few skeins of several Knit Picks yarns I have been wanting to try so am mostly swatching to see how they knit up. I started a winter hat for myself in Lilac Ambrosia, a fabulously soft alpaca/cashmere blend and I think I am going to love it. I have also been playing around with a few skeins of Andean Silk, an alpaca/silk/wool blend and it is knitting up nicely. I’ve been wanting to learn the Traveling Vine lace pattern so Have begun a narrow scarf with just five repeats of the vine pattern and I think it is going to be lovely.

While poring through some old knitting pattern books I discovered that the pattern now called Frost Flowers was once called Shooting Star in an old English knitting book I have. There are so many old lace patterns I want to learn and, for me, it is often best to learn them one at a time in narrow scarves with many repeats. Because I knit in the German manner (having been taught by Benedictine nuns), I hold my yarn in the left hand and, thus, my stitches tend to be in the wrong orientation on the needle. Over the years, I’ve trained myself to compensate for this. When the pattern says “SSK” I “K2tog” and vice versa. That works. But I always had trouble on the purl rows. However, working on Traveling Vine, I’m finally working that out. The pattern is coming out nicely.

So I have a lot of work I should be doing but it is cold and rainy and a good day for getting lost in the cosmos. I’ve got a pot of tea on and I’ve started listening to Joshlyn Jackson’s gods in Alabama on tape. Joshlyn is a member of our Working Novelists group and we have all watched with fascination as she has garnered success after success with this book. Now, listening to it, I understand why - it is wonderful.

So summer is gone and snuggling in time is coming. This morning there is tea and knitting and a good book to listen to. The chores can wait a little while.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Stuff I

The following is an assortment of stuff that has landed on my desk this week:

I met Katharina Wehrli through a mutual friend. She is a healer and a very warm, nurturing person. She has just released her first book, The Why in the Road through her own publishing company Earthlit Press. It is a book of wisdom and practical guidance for discovering the thoughts and beliefs that we limit ourselves with. You are invited to stop by her web site and check out her book.

Tomorrow, October 8, the Rockport Community House Needleworker’s Group will meet from 10 to 2. All are welcome. Just bring your current project, a treat to share and $5 to the Community House on Broadway. This is wonderful way to spend a Saturday, working on your project in the company of friendly, knowledgeable crafters, and sharing good food. Please come.

This weekend is also the Cape Ann Artisan’s Tour. All around Cape Ann potters, painters, jewelers and more will open their studios for you to visit. This is a very fun way to spend a day or two. I have done it many times and always meet wonderful people and have a great time. This is their 22nd year for the tour. Download a map at their web site!

David Crouse won the Flannery O’Connor Award for his collection of short stories Copy Cats. He is about to begin his book tour but will be at Borders in Peabody tonight and at Jabberwocky in Newburyport on the 14th. You are invited to come by and hear him read.

The North Shore Arts Association is beginning a new online adventure. Pleased by the response to this blog, I have set one up for the Artist Members of the NSAA. They will be able to use it to post their latest awards, accomplishments, workshops, exhibitions, etc. You are invited to check it out and see what happens.

Inspired by the success of some of the small independent presses across the country, four local small presses have decided to join forces and discuss the formation of a Cape Ann Independent Press Consortium. The presses involved are Level Best Books, Back Shore Press, Atlantic Path Publishing and Parlez-Moi Press. Our first meeting is scheduled in Gloucester for November 3 at 7pm. Anyone interested in small independent publishing may contact me by email for more information:

And, finally, much to my surprise, I discovered that my blog about Gloucester’s Ted Williams on September 30 was read by Mike Lattof, an assistant football coach at Gloucester High School. He was so impressed with Mark’s wonderful article about his father that Coach Lattoff requested permission to reprint it on the Gloucester Fighting Fishermen Football web site. Mark was very pleased to give permission. It is now there on the site’s News page.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

I Feel Like A Dinosaur

In this week’s New Yorker there is a review of Zadie Smith’s latest novel. I admit I have not read any of her books though I have been aware of her accomplishments. In the article the reviewer mentioned her youth and beauty and multi-cultural background and ventured the opinion that these things alone made her appeal to publishers as being highly marketable. That depressed me.

Zadie Smith is beautiful - her large, dark soulful eyes alone would sell a few hundred books I imagine. She is also very young and, by all accounts, intelligent and a deep thinker. Those are good things but I have to admit I’m depressed about the beauty=marketability comment. I won’t argue with the truth of it, I’m just depressed about the fact of it.

I know we are a youth-obsessed and looks-obsessed culture. It’s a disease. Someone had sent me a link to a web site called Awful Plastic Surgery and it was frightening to see what perfectly attractive looking people had done to themselves just to look better - which they didn’t. When I saw photos of people I had once thought of as beautiful - Melanie Griffith and Farrah Fawcett - and saw what they did to themselves just to hang onto the illusion of youth I could have cried.

But that’s show biz and show biz has always been more looks obsessed than other worlds. I’m still reeling from the awareness that a writer might have a better chance at selling a book if she is beautiful. A writer??? Writers aren’t actors - writers, to paraphrase Harlan Ellison, are something holy.

And I was thinking about Zadie Smith. Obviously she is intelligent, accomplished, skillful, and ambitious. Her latest book itself is titled On Beauty, and according to the review, is beautifully written, if somewhat lacking in actual story, and filled with ideas. How would Smith feel about the reviewers observation that her own beauty made her more marketable?

I don’t know, sometimes I feel like the world and I have gone in opposite directions. I appreciate beauty and am a staunch advocate of the pleasures of the senses but I’ve long believed the old adage about beauty being in the eye of the beholder. I don’t like this new era of marketed beauty, Photoshop-ed models in advertising, child fashion models (of course they’re beautiful - they have no pores!), and herd mentality.

I buy Vogue from time to time because I love textiles and it absolutely amazes me to see what some of the new designers do with them. Plus I absolutely love the articles in Vogue. But I’ve noticed a trend that I have mixed feelings about. Older actresses and models are frequently shown in ads which I love but then they Photoshop all the truth out of them to make them “beautiful”. Look, Andie MacDowell is beautiful no matter how old she is. So is Jessica Lange. And Cheryl Tiegs is my age and still drop-dead gorgeous. PLEASE LET US SEE A FEW LINES!!! Control that Rubber-Stamp tool! Reign in that Blur tool! These are beautiful women who have earned their laugh lines and the character in their faces. Why do we need to deny them that?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m out of touch with life. That’s what happens when you go 12 years without owning a television. I wish Zadie Smith and all the beautiful, young writers well but I hope their success will ultimately be determined by a whole lot more than their marketable faces.

Thanks for reading

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Lost in Time

There is an old cemetery behind my house - the oldest Unitarian-Universalist cemetery in this country. From the window by my desk I can see it as I work. It has been well-tended in recent months by caring neighbors. The old headstones have been cleared of debris and the eight stone vaults set into the side of the hill now have woodpiles blocking them from all the trees that were thinned out. At the moment it is full of fog - so much so that I cannot see the houses on the other side.

When I was booting up I checked the harbor cam and it, too, looks out on a wall of fluffy gray. I love mornings like this. I tidied up, made a pot of my favorite tea - Twining’s Ceylon Orange Pekoe - put a lilting Celtic CD on and came here to write.

Years ago my brother Jack told me that on cold nights when there were no sounds around his house but the wind in the trees and the babbling of the little brook out back he loved to sit in his kitchen working on a gun stock or carving a knife handle and lose track of time - not just the hours but the centuries.

Jack was a man from another era anyway. He loved to hunt and fish, make wine and beer, bake bread and can the vegetables he picked in his garden or the berries that he picked in the woods that surrounded his house. He and his wife lived a life of admirable simplicity. He fashioned beautiful gun stocks from exotic woods and carved bone and horn shafts for pocket knives. Losing track of the century he happened to be in wouldn’t surprise anyone who knew him.

But I have had that experience too and it is beautiful. For me it usually comes while reading or knitting. I get caught up in the story or in my own thoughts and release my attachment to the linearity of time.

Once, when I lived in Marblehead, it was a gray, foggy October day much like this. I was living in a house that overlooked Salem harbor - where so much of this country’s history has happened anyway. From the porch I could see three lighthouses and the fog horns were lowing that particular day. I was in a chair on the porch reading one of Mary Stewart’s luscious Merlin novels bundled in sweaters and under a fur throw. I was totally enthralled. I have no idea how much time passed but when I was startled back into the world I felt like I had been abruptly awakened from a very deep dream. A friend was standing on the porch beside me with a worried look on her face.

“Where were you?!” she asked, “I’ve been calling to you for five minutes.”

I was stunned to look up and see cars and motor boats and other mysteries to the century I had been lost in. The feeling stayed with me for days.

I think it is a wonderful thing to be able to let go of the world - to let go of time and place and modern conventions. It is in times like that you can most readily understand the fathomlessness of existence and the endless possibilities of your soul’s unique life.

That is one of the gifts of great story - it can transport you not just to another time and place but to an expanded awareness of being. Today is shaping up to be a good day for some time travel. I need to finish up my work and then take a break from this millennium.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A Shawl Fit for a Mermaid

It’s done! I am so pleased with the way this shawl turned out considering that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I started it. I had eight balls of Knit Picks’s scrumptious Suri Dream yarn in the color called “Ocean” and I wanted to make a shawl which would replace my old gray Garter and Lace shawl which has seen a lot of wear. The yarn is unimaginably soft and warm.

Since I love the way the Garter and Lace Shawl drapes and falls I decided to use the same method starting at the top center and increasing 4 stitches on all even rows - 1 on each end and 1 on either side of the back center row. I decided to knit in stockinette stitch instead of garter stitch and used a Size 10 needle.

My original plan was that it would be knit solid for 20 inches to provide extra warmth around the neck and shoulders but then gradually become lacier toward the bottom. After I had 20" knit in plain stockinette, I started working the first pattern stitch was something I copied from a Lily Chin sweater in an old issue of Interweave Knits Magazine. After a few repeats of that, wanting it to become even lacier, I changed to a modified Horseshoe stitch which ultimately would up looking like waves - rows and rows of waves.

Finally I made a rather funky edging by working a diamond shape in Mermaid Tail Lace (from a Barbara Walker book) between each wave. I knitted each diamond separately, broke the thread and picked up on the next one. To give a neater finish, I worked a rown of single crochet all along the bottom going up and down each side of the diamonds with 12 sc per side. And - voila! - a shawl in Ocean green with a pattern of waves and Mermaid’s Tail lace. A shawl fit for a Mermaid!

The finished dimensions are 84" x 42" - a generous size for chilly autumn mornings in Gloucester.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Read to Me

My mother read to us a lot when we were kids. She loved to read anyway and having kids to read to was a good excuse to take a break from chores and indulge that love. I grew up in a house full of books and both of my parents always had a book or two tucked in the cushions of their favorite reading chairs.

I started reading long before I can remember. I was a big fan of Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and the Hardy Boys and the Rover Boys. My brother Jack and I often read to each other when we were a little older. He loved outdoor adventure books - Jack London and James Oliver Curwood. He read the Kazan books over and over and over - sometimes to me. He wasn’t as enchanted by the books I loved - the Bronte sisters and Daphne DuMaurier - but together we went through my grandfather’s entire collection of Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne books.

Much as I love sinking into a good book, there is something very warm and wonderful about listening to someone read to you. The combination of a delicious story and a a human voice is very soothing. Perhaps that is why I am so fond of audio books.

I first discovered audio books some years back when facing a ten hour drive alone. A friend gave me Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, unabridged, and that ten hour drive was pure enchantment. It was winter and light snow fell from Boston to Albany to Binghamton but I was in the Himalayas with Matthiessen and it was glorious.

Later when I took a job that involved an hour commute each way I made weekly trips to the library to load up on audio books. I loved them so much I would often go out and drive around at lunch time just to hear more. I remember driving home in horrible traffic one night while listening to Jean Hegland’s fabulous Into the Forest and being so mesmerized that, once I got back to Gloucester, I drove around for another fifteen minutes just to see if she would really be able to kill that wild boar.

Now I listen to audio books while I work. I do a lot of work that involves image processing and that is perfect for audio books. In the evening audio books keep me company while I cook or sew or knit.

I’ve come to make a distinction about audio books. Some books are just plain meant to be read - lovely, literary books rich with description and ideas are best enjoyed on the page, where you can put them down and think or reread or savor. When you don’t have that luxury it is best to chose audio books that are fast moving and not too complex or books that I have read before but want to re-experience.

I confess - I love Harry Potter. I’ve read all the books but the audio books, read by a genius named Jim Dale, are an entire new dimension in enjoyment. I have listened to those books over and over just to appreciate Dale’s artistry with creating characters with his voice alone. Some books are better when read by the author - Cold Mountain read in Charles Frazier’s soft, gentlemanly Carolina drawl - is a delight.

So this weekend I had an idea. I went online to our library and searched for unabridged audio books of some old favorites: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn. They were all there waiting to be checked out and enjoyed so I entered my request and am looking forward to picking them up. I didn’t look for any of the Kazan books though. I’d rather remember them read in Jack’s young voice.

Thanks for reading.