Tuesday, February 28, 2006


I have been reading William B. Irvine’s On Desire: Why We Want What We Want and it is has started me thinking. The Buddhists say that desire is at the root of all human suffering and Irvine’s book lends credence to that. He has an interesting approach to the subject — analyzing it, finding scientific explanations, tracking the psychological evolution of desire and finally discussing how we can go about dealing with our desires.

I’ve often wondered about my own desires. I am not overly drawn to material things yet those things I am drawn to, I am drawn to powerfully. Nowhere is this more obvious than with fabric and yarn. My stash could rival the best of them and yet I am always keeping an eye out for an irresistible new acquisition opportunity.

There is a memory from childhood that I’ve thought about over the years. I don’t know how old I was — maybe 9 or 10 — and I was looking through one of my mother’s magazines, Woman’s Day or Family Circle. In it was an article about funky play wigs made out of rug yarn that mommies could make for their little girls. I can still see them in my mind’s eye — one was yellow with long braids and another was a black Geisha-like updo. I wanted those wigs so badly! The longing for those wigs — all of them --- was overwhelming. I knew my mother wasn’t the craftsy type and would never make them and I couldn’t imagine who in my world would be capable of making those for me but I just HAD to have them.

This huge desire only lasted a day or so and I soon forgot all about it. A few years later I was throwing out stuff and I came across that magazine which I hoarded in a drawer. I remember looking at those wigs and thinking “why did I want those?” That’s the nature of desire.

Irvine has an interesting chapter on studies done with people who have suffered various types of brain damage that separate communication between the two hemispheres of the brain. We have long known about our bicameral brains, the right-brain/left-brain functioning, but understanding how the two halves of ourselves effect our everyday life is still mysterious. One of the most intriguing things Irvine talks about is the strange dichotomy between the decision-making powers of our two brain spheres.

When we desire something our brain just goes to work trying to figure out how to get it. This frequently involves making decisions that will facilitate attaining our desire. We think that if we could just analyze all the facts unencumbered by emotion and desire we could make the right decision but studies with people who have lost connection to their emotional brain function have shown this is not the case. People whose left brain functions perfectly, without the interference of the emotional-intuitive right brain, can analyze data endlessly but frequently have difficulty coming to a conclusion. They become so overwhelmed with all the facts, the variables in the facts, and extraneous facts that impact the original set of facts, that they become like a computer that is hung up in an endless loop of data with no end in sight. It is only when the emotional-intuitive side of the brain steps in and says “enough” that they can make the decision they need to make.

I’ve always said that I don’t really trust my intuition but I’m starting to rethink that. I’ve made some very good intuitive decisions. It is only when I try to apply logic to my desires that I get muddled up. In many senses desire is a compass pointing to the mid-point between our logic and our emotion-intuition. Desire, carefully nurtured and tended, points us in a direction that will both satisfy our logical selves and delight our emotional selves. I didn’t really want those wigs — but I did desire the ability to make such clever things.

And heaven knows I’ve got the yarn!

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Leslie Wind's Shawl Pins

I stopped to visit Leslie yesterday. I had a scarf for her and she had two new shawl pins for me. I love Leslie's Shawl Pins, they are elegant and graceful in addition to being highly useful. Leslie and I both belong to the Rockport Community House Needleworkers Group which Leslie started several years ago. She is one of those amazing people who has an abundance of energy and ideas. She is also a superbly skillful metalsmith as you can see in the following pictures.

I'm a bit of a purist in certain areas. I don't wear much jewlery but what I wear tends to be very classic with a funky twist, thus Leslie's designs are perfect for me. When I first started making shawls I saw a lot of shawl pins but they just weren't my style. Many of them looked like big safety pins with beads strung on them. I think they might be cute as a sweater pin but when I wear one of my shawls I want something beautiful and elegant holding it in place. Thus began Leslie's adventure in shawl pin making.
Back in December I posted pictures of the first two pins she designed. I gave them to the people I made shawls for at Christmas time. The people I gave them to loved them, they are so classic. Since then Leslie has been on a quest to find other ways to hold beautiful shawls in place so the following two pins are her latest creations:

The Spiral: I absolutely love this pin! Of all the designs she has made this is my favorite. It comes in two weights - this is the heavier one designed for bulkier shawls and is shown here on one I knit out of ivory colored silk chenille that I bought at Webs in Northampton. The lighterweight one can be used for gossamers. All her pins are beautifully finished so as not to cause snags. It is also available in silver. This is a highly versatile design. The two ends of the spiral end in blunt-end hooks that just catch between stitches. it can be used as a belt buckle also. More photos in the Mermaid KAL Index Page.

The Circle: This is a very cool and versatile pin. You can leave it open to hold your shawl loosely in place or thread the bar through the center hole for a snugger fit. It is crafted here in brass and silver together but Leslie can make variations on this. I love the design

It is shown here on my Barbie Rose scarf and, as you can see, there is a little chain that loops through the two sides of the scarf then is secured by the bar threaded through the center. More photos in the Mermaid KAL Index Page.

All of Leslie's Shawl Pins are available at her shop in Folly Cove or by calling her at 978.546.6539 or emailing her at
wind@cove.com. She takes credit cards and will ship them to you. She can do custom and bulk orders, too. I love these for their elegance and craftsmanship. You can see more of Leslie's work at her web site www.LeslieWind.com. She is revising the web site but there is still a lot to see.

Also, I have posted more pictures of the Mermaid Shawl in progress on the Mermaid Shawl Knitalong Index Page. Check it out for closeups of the lace patterns in progress.

Thanks for reading!!!
Pins are copyright © 2006 Leslie Wind

Friday, February 24, 2006

Puttanesca & My Invented Heritage

Isabel Allende left her homeland, Chile, in the early 1970s because of the political climate there. For over 30 years, living all over the world from Venezuela to the United States, she talked about her country until she realized that the country she spoke so longingly of was one of her own invention having relatively little to do with Chile, the country of her childhood. Out of that realization grew her beautiful book, My Invented Country.

Ethnically my heritage is pretty mixed. My mother’s family is all Bavarian but my Dad’s family is harder to trace. We know there is English and French but I was surprised to learn that our family name, Valentine, actually came from Scotland. I was hoping for Italy. Italian is My Invented Heritage. If you look at my face there is no denying I am of German stock. If you know my personality and temperament, the French is very much in evidence. My physical constitution is Scottish and German, too. But my soul is Italian.

I’ve always kind of suspected this but it wasn’t until I moved to Gloucester, and to an old Italian neighborhood in Gloucester, that I found out how true this is. On summer mornings, when I wake up to the sounds of Italian opera drifting on seabreezes, I take a deep breath and savor the perfume of simmering tomato sauce loaded with garlic and twenty varieties of basil growing in my neighbors’ gardens. Despite the beauty of the art and the music and the language and the people, the real beauty of my invented heritage is the food.

Within a couple blocks of my house there is an embarrassment of riches in this area — Virgilio’s Bakery, La Trattoria Restaurant, Valentino’s Pizza (surely we are related!), Café Sicilia Bakery where the best goodies on the planet are produced by Anna and Paulo every day, Sebastian's Pizza, Scalfani’s Bakery and, the jewel in the crown, Trupiano’s Deli. My Irish mailman swears he only keeps this route so he can get lunch at Trupiano’s every day. Which brings me to last night’s dinner.

I was driving home from a meeting recently — one that had gone on much too long and I was hungry. The thought of Grace’s rice balls at Trupiano’s was much on my mind, so I stopped. You can’t go in there and buy just one thing — too much beckons. I filled up my basket and left with my treasures. As I was putting my groceries away I realized what I had purchased — the makings of Puttanesca.

Trudi, who lived in Italy for 12 years, taught me to make Puttanesca. You can go on line and find lots of recipes for it but in my mind having a recipe for Puttanesca is like reading an instruction manual for having sex. An apt comparison considering the word Puttanesca derives from the Italian slang word “putta” meaning — um — whore. The legend is that Puttanesca got its origins among the ladies of the evening in the port town of Naples. They would brew up heady batches of the stuff to fortify themselves between appointments on busy nights — and to lure customers as well. Either would work fine in my opinion. Puttanesca is not for the feint of heart — or palate. A real Puttanesca is in-your-face sassy with strong flavors and rich spices. It doesn’t require much cooking, busy streetwalkers don’t have the time, but it does require boldness.

So this is how I do it. Heat a enough olive oil to coat the pan and chop a large onion and as many cloves of fresh garlic as you like. I used four last night. Add a handful of shredded basil and a LOT of dried oregano. When the onions begin to soften add a can of well-drained tuna and a small tin of drained anchovies. Mix in. Add tomatoes. I like the Pomi ones that come from Italy in a box. Add a couple tablespoons of the bottled chopped hot red peppers also from Italy. Add a couple tablespoons of capers and of chopped black olives. Heat through and that’s it. Serve over any pasta you like with the reddest, boldest wine you have. As Garrison Keillor says, “It gives shy people the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.”

Maybe we best just leave it at that.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

More Raving About Hancock's Studio

I have been thinking a lot about the evening without electricity spent in Walker Hancock's Lanesville studio last Friday. It was a beautiful evening and I can't get it out of my mind. There is something so beautiful there and it has stayed with me. I got an email from an old friend who reads my blog. He read that blog post and wrote "you write with a passion that impresses me but scares me too as I do not think I feel that way about anything." The passionate side of my nature has been one of those blessing/curse things. Maybe that is why I feel most at ease among artists and writers --- because they seem to have that kind of intensity, passion, and are usually reasonably comfortable with it.

We live in a society in which being "unimpressed" has developed a level of cool and I don't know why. I remember when I was in college being blasé about everything was very much cultivated among my friends and I had a hard time with that. There are things that drive me crazy, there are things I chose to ignore completely, and then there are the things I am totally in love with but I can't really think of much that I am knowingly blasé about. But anyway, that's a subject for another day.

So I was thinking about Hancock's studio and I went digging through a pile of old books and photographs left from various art association projects I have worked on and I found several photographs that were taken inside that very studio when Hancock was still working there. Though I had seen the photos many times before they have taken on a new meaning now that I am familiar
with the room in which they were created. The one at left is of Walker working on the famous statue of St. Michael holding the body of the fallen soldier that I first fell in love with as a girl in the Philadelphia train station. Now, having sat in that room with my friends knitting and having spent a candlelit evening there with Rebecca talking, it seems particularly special to me. The arched door to the left now has glass French doors installed in addition to the utility doors in the photo and you can look out over the woods to the quarry below. In the photo at right is Hancock's statue of General McArthur. I love the pose, so very noble and superior. Master of all he surveys. Regardless of one's feelings about the subject, it is an impressive work.

Behind him, of course it the fireplace that now shelters a wood burning stove on which we cooked butternut squash soup and grilled cheese sandwiches last Friday night. On the mantle of the fireplace are a collection of small studies for other works. They are no longer there which is too bad.

While I was looking for these photos I re-read the preface to the Rockport Art Association's exhibition catalog for their 1997 exhibit Sculptors of Cape Ann: From Medals to Monuments. Hancock wrote the preface to that and John Manship wrote the biographies of the sculptors it featured including the biography of his father, Paul Manship. Within three years both great artists --- Hancock and John Manship --- were dead. I have been in John's studio, too, though only briefly, and wonder if his spirit lingers there as well.

The photo at left is my favorite, possibly because I love the subject so much. I love the way the light streams through the skylights on the vaulted ceiling to illuminate the angel's face. Last Friday night I was sitting at a table under those skylights and, looking up, could see a million stars high above us. It was a bitter cold, crystal clear night and, that deep in the woods with no electricity, nothing hid the starlight. It was beautiful.

I don't know --- if there is magic in this world then this is where it lies, in places where people have given their imaginations and creativity and passion the freedom to manifest whatever form it takes. And if the magic lingers then so much the better for those who come after. Rebecca has invited me to come and spend a few days just writing in the library that lies beyond the door just to the right of the fireplace in these photos. I am going with gratitude and the fervent hope that there will be a little of the magic left there for me.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Mermaid Shawl KAL #2: First Lace Pattern

If you purchased Kathleen Valentine's novel The Old Mermaid's Tale and would like a free copy of the Mermaid Shawl section of the book in PDF format, please email: mermaid@valentine-design.com

A couple of years ago I created a shawl out of Knit Picks Suri Dream that I called the Mermaid Shawl. I posted pictures of it on my blog and I have been inundated with requests for the pattern ever since. I tried having a KAL and it went fairly well --- several people completed the shawl and sent photos but there were a few kinks I had to work out of the pattern and it has been on my To-Do list forever. Well, I'm finally doing it.

Yesterday my good friend Jane offered to act as model so I could take some pictures for a knitting book I am working on. I'm calling it The Mermaid Shawl & other Beauties: Shawls, Cocoons and Wraps. At present I have the Mermaid Shawl and two variations on it, two cocoons, and four shawls/scarves all of them featuring lacy stitch work and all of them easily adaptable by size. It is my intention to have the book ready by the first of the year.

Here are three of the designs that will be featured. Below is the original Mermaid Shawl in Suri Dream. I also have a variation called the Gypsy Shawl made from recycled sari silk.

This one is a striped, open-work rectangle made with Knit Picks Shimmer, an alpaca and silk blend. It works up fast and gets it's soft color changes by knitting with two strands held together in alternating changes. (That's my car in the background.)

And this is a rather fanciful wrap made of recycled raw silk from a thrift store sweater that I unraveled. I realize people will not be able to find a similar sweater but it is a good example of how you can turn odd finds into treasures.

In addition to the patterns I want to write about how I adapt patterns and designs to accommodate available stash, how to transform a problem piece into something entirely new, and other random things I have discovered in my 40+ years of knitting. I'm even including a short story that tells a fictional account of the origin of the Mermaid Shawl. As promised, those who have written to tell me they purchased and read The Old Mermaid's Tale, will get a free copy of the book as soon as it is available. I'm going to post more designs later this week.

I want to thank Jane for being such a lovely model. I also want to thank Tom Ellis for conveniently positioning the Thomas E. Lannon Schooner off Ten Pound Island while we were shooting. He didn't know about it but I thank him anyway. This is the proposed cover. What do you think? Would you buy this book?

Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Friday Night at Rebecca’s

We had a windstorm Friday evening. The wind was vicious and sensible stayed at home in their houses but I had talked to Rebecca earlier in the day and she invited me to dinner. I have written before about Rebecca living in Walker Hancock’s old studio. It is always fun to share a meal with Rebecca, it is doubly enticing to do that in that wonderful building. So out I went.

When I arrived, she greeted me at the door with a flashlight. The electricity was out and she had filled the house with candles and lanterns and had a fire going in the wood burner. What could be better? We sat in the studio with glasses of wine listening to the wind howl outside and talked about writing. She is working on her dissertation on Anna Hyatt Huntington. This has been a long process for her hampered in part by a car wreck two years ago. Ironically she was in Boston and anxious to get back to Gloucester because the George Aarons exhibition was about to open. Rebecca was the curator for that exhibition and wrote the catalog which I designed. That was the second catalog she and I collaborated on, the first being for the Manship Retrospective a few years earlier.

It is interesting how art and writing has woven through our friendship. We met when she was a co-curator for the Gloucester City Hall Sculpture Exhibition in 1998. Ironically it was during that exhibition that I also met Walker Hancock who was to die a few weeks later. Now Rebecca lives in his studio, both of us are writing and both of us wonder about what life holds next for us.

So, in the room in which Hancock created so many of his great works, she fixed soup and grilled cheese sandwiches on the wood burner and we drank wine and ate chocolate and let our thoughts and imaginations wander. I told her that my short story in Windchill, “Homemade Pie and Sausage”, has been nominated for a Derringer award from the Shorty Mystery Fiction Society. She told me about her recent retreat in Tennessee with her guru. It was a good evening for talking about art and writing and mysticism and wonders.

Picasso once said that the reason he lived such a long and vital life was because, when he was working in his studio, he left his body outside the door. That is a fine sentiment. The best art is a transcendent act, an act of communion with a higher part of the self as well as with the universal. There is a sacred dimension to great art which rivals, and often surpasses, that of religion. It may well account for the spiritual, church-like atmosphere of many artists’ studios. I have a book somewhere in the stacks in the living room --- it is one of those big, coffee-table art books filled with photographs of studios in which some of the world’s greatest artists worked. It stands to reason that the environment in which art is created often becomes a work of art of its own.

Even after all these years artists travel to Giverny, France to paint in the gardens that surround Monet’s studio. You look at the paintings brought back from Giverny and the settings are as familiar now as when Monet was alive — the yellow bridge, the rose arbors, the oriental trees. And woven them through them is the soul of Monet himself as though he still lingers and maybe, just for a moment, cannot resist the urge to reach through the brush of an aspiring artist and put a few final touches on the painting.

So Rebecca and I linger in Hancock’s studio and talk and are quiet, too. In the flickering firelight it is possible to wonder if he is listening to what we have to say.

The lights came on shortly after midnight as I was about to leave. On one of the walls in the workshop is another angel Hancock made — not the magnificent, sad, beautiful angel in the Philadelphia train station that I love, but a pretty, flying angel raising a trumpet to play heavenly music. Rebecca said she feels so blessed to be living in that place. I am blessed just to visit there. It is a sacred place and I hope its grace will bless us both.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Letters from Tanzania

My friend Gail is a remarkable woman of astonishing generosity. After raising four children of her own she is now on her own and has undertaken some truly amazing adventures. She writes email from various parts of the world which are so full of life and joy about each new adventure that I have asked her to let me share parts of them here.

Recently she left for Tanzania where she is working as a volunteer in an orphanage for children who have AIDs and are either orphaned or abandoned by families that cannot care for them. Gail began studying Swahili last fall for this adventure and she left on February 10th to spend 10 weeks there. The following is exerpts from the letter she sent yesterday:

Forgive me for not writing often but I am occupied each moment of the day and exhaustion hits us all each nite. Also the lack of electricity negates computer performance. We do live without electricity, fans, whatever modern. The expenditure of energy in this heat and with our work does cause each one of us volunteers to be very, very tired each day. My orphans are just the most beautiful 'wtoto's' in the world. There are 34 little ones, and thus far i have changed about 300 nappies, bathed the 34 daily, assisted in the feeding of these tots and babes, peeled potatoes and carrots, washed the floors, and crawled back to the compound utterly exhausted! i have never been so happy in my life, other than when my own were babes and tots. one cannot even think of home due to the constant activites and the classes we attend. i will just have to wait to get home to explain all because i just might lose you even now if the electricity goes off suddenly. i am now sitting at katie's hotel, where i am staying with her for the weekend. we are going to visit a tanzanian family in an hour to share lunch with them. he is a worker here at the hotel and i will be so pleased to use my swahili. i do speak it very well (smile) if I do say so myself...........they are so appreciative if one tries, as in any country. i do pray for you all each nite, and hold you near and dear to my heart. i attend a lutheran service each moring at the hospiti before walking up the hill to the orpanage. yesterday they asked me to read the english version of the gospel, and thank god it was already translated!!!!! i do again love it here, have adjusted I believe to the heat, the lack of what we Americans take for granted, and am learning the ways of the third world countries. yes, yes, yes, i have totally thrown away my makeup, no time for it, and who cares right!!!!! i try to stay very humble and gentle and smile all the time (perhaps that also adds to the exhaustion).......i am learning well my friends. i luv u all and shall write in a week or so, where there is electricity in my village hopefully, and i have a few minutes to gather my thoughts to write. I love hearing from you so please write when you have a minute. you are all so special to me, you are my angels. sending hugs of tanzanian warmth............MaMa Gail

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Tree Next Door

After Sunday’s blizzard I spent a good part of Monday morning removing snow — at least 18 inches of it — from the top of my car. It was a beautiful morning with a bright blue sky and, aside from the white mountains filling my neighborhood, no evidence of the preceding 24 hours. Fortunately the snow was light and fluffy and easy to brush off. It’s just that I was running out of places to brush it to.

While I was doing that I had a chance to study, not for the first time, the tree next door. It grows out of a circle in the pavement in front of Sandy’s house and twists and turns in every direction as though it had grown in time to some very exotic and mysterious music that caused it a good deal of confusion. Now without the leaves on it, blanketed with snow against a bright blue sky, you can see the peculiar shape of this very strange tree.

I have asked Sandy about and she said no one really seems to know what it is. People from the arboretum in Cambridge have come up to study it and it remains a mystery. There is a painting that hangs in the stairwell of my house done probably in the 1920s that shows the tree next door very much as it is today. Sandy’s husband says he father said it had always been there in his memory. It is a wonderous thing.

In summer the leaves are thick, dense and a deep, dark green. In the ten+ years that I have been here I have seen it in bloom a couple of times sporting huge milky white flowers. I’m sorry I never photographed it that way but will whenever I see those flowers again.

The legend is that it was brought back from the Orient by some old sea captain and planted there. Some people claim that he didn’t know what he was doing and planted it upside down so the roots are in the air and the leaves grow backwards. I am sufficiently romantic to love the story that it was carried across the Pacific Ocean, around Cape Horn and through the Straits of Magellan then up the Atlantic Coast of the Americas to be planted in the yard next door. If that’s not what happened, it should be.

Mysteries are good for people. They hold in them the key to wonder and to dream. When I was a little girl we played in the woods across the street from our home as though it were a park. In the woods there was an area that was particularly fascinating — dense with berry bushes and plants not found in any other part of the woods. Daffodils and jonquils grew there along with currant bushes, raspberries and sometimes we would find patches of scrawny wild carrots and tufts of bright chives and clumps of flowering dill. In the center of this tangle of overgrowth was the stone foundation of an old house and sometimes we would dig up old shoes, broken tea cups and canning jars. Someone once lived there.

My father told a lot of stories about that house from when he was a boy. An old spinster woman named Mary Opal once lived there with a hundred cats. She lived alone and dressed in black and every day she walked from her house in the woods, down through the old alley that ran behind the house where Dad grew up and up to the convent where the sisters would give her lunch. As a child I loved to crawl under those bushes by Mary Opal’s house and imagine what her life was like.

While I was clearing snow from my car yesterday a man walking down the street stopped and stared at the tree. He asked if I lived in that house and if it was my tree. No, I said, and I told him what I had heard, that it had been carried back from the Orient by an old sea captain. “Wow,” he said, “imagine that.”

After he walked on I got my camera and took some pictures of the tree. Maybe someone will see it and have an idea about what it is. Or, better yet, maybe people will look at it and let their imagination run wild. What better purpose could a tree ask for?

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Cultivating Romance

The following is a column I wrote for the Gloucester Daily Times for Valentine's Day, 2000. It seemed like something worth repeating for this Valentine's Day, too.

I was born with the name Valentine and have always been glad of that. When I was in college and first read James Joyce I, like Stephen Daedelus, began to wonder at the meaning of my name. Was there an epiphany in it for me as there was for him? I've been wondering for quite a few years now and every year as Valentine's Day approaches my quest seems renewed. Valentine's Day, like most things deemed anyway significant in this country, has become a commercial bonanza. Every store is filled with flaming red hearts, cherubs, and glaring reminders of how spending even more will truly declare ones love. All of this designed to make those in love feel guilty for not doing enough and to make those not in love feel like crawling under a rock. I keep reminding myself - this is not about love, this is about commerce.

But what about love, most especially romantic love, for that is what Valentine's Day reminds us of. Life, I believe, holds infinite potential for romance - in every minute, in every action. We have this notion that to be romantic we have to find that special someone and then make all the right moves, say the right words. But I believe that true romance is how we live our lives. It is not about finding the right person, it is about being the right person. It is about opening your soul and your mind and your senses to all the pleasures possible in every moment.

I stop by Bill's house on a rainy afternoon. Mario Lanza's glorious voice fills the house. Bill is in the kitchen chopping tomatoes and garlic, tearing up basil leaves, making meatballs. The smells are succulent. "Taste this," he says lifting a spoon to my lips, his sky blue eyes aglow. "Luscious", I say. "I love to spend rainy afternoons cooking," he tells me.

Mary brings me a velvety rose the color of ripe Tuscan figs split open by the sun. "I was cleaning out a corner of the old garden last summer and I found the remains of this withered rose bush", she tells me, "I dug it up and nursed it all winter. I know it sounds crazy but I wanted so much to bring it back to life and now look…." Its perfume rises like a lark on a summer morning.

My brother Jack sends me a bottle of homemade wine. Every summer he tramps the woods of the Allegheny Mountains where he lives filling his pack with wild grapes. He distills them in to wine the color of liquid rubies with a taste like mountain laurel glowing in the sunlight and the songs of robins just before a summer rain.

Betty Lou forgets to come to lunch. "I was outside painting," she explains later , "and the clouds were so incredible I couldn't leave. I had to paint them while they were there."

Charlie works late in to the night in his woodshop in back of the house. He has a perfect piece of golden walnut he is shaping in to a jewelry box for his daughter's birthday. He sings along to old Frank Sinatra records as he works. I can hear his husky baritone while I stir a pot of rice pudding fragrant with saffron and cardamom in my kitchen. Trudi lights lilac scented candles and stitches tiny pink seashells to golden ribbons decorating the baskets she fills with magical gifts. Sharon fills her bird feeders and grooms her cats. Robin plants night-blooming jasmine under her bedroom window. Michael climbs the stone wall at Lane's Cove and plays his flute as the sun sets over the water.

This, I believe, is romance. This is life well and truly lived with a taste for the indescribable pleasure of beauty. This is the touch of the Lover. My father once told me that I was lucky because God had given me the gift of eyes which see beauty everywhere. I believe him but I also believe I inherited those eyes from my father - along with my romantic last name.

The wallpaper on my computer screen is a close up of the faces of the lovers in Ruben's painting "The Union of Earth and Water" - my favorite painting. I love it partly because the lovers Ruben's shows are mature lovers - his beard gray, her body softened and relaxed by life. But mostly I love it for the looks in their eyes - not fiery passion, not sentimental longing, but the most enduring of romantic love - love of beauty and open appreciation. When we cultivate appreciation and learn to look with love our days are filled with romance and every gesture is a Valentine to life.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Go Ask Alice.....

There are only a few writers whose latest book I anticipate and read as soon as I can get it. Alice Hoffman is one of them. I didn’t discover her until I moved to New England and picked up a copy of Illumination Night while visiting Nantucket. I read it in two days and went back to the bookstore to buy her other books. She has a lovely way of balancing magical imagery with a spare style that absolutely stuns and baffles me. I don’t know how she does it. But even years after reading her first books certain images stay with me.

One of the things I love about Hoffman is her male characters. She has a way of making these flawed, foolish, but beautiful men that you just can’t help but love. It’s been years since I read Turtle Moon but Julian Cash has a way of showing up in the daydreams that precede my stories. I still think about Stephen, the mysterious, vulnerable wolf man in Second Nature.

But even more interesting than the beauty of these flawed men is the way her heroines find these men and become fascinated by them — often against their better judgement — and how their lives transform because of this. She has a way of infusing a kind of fully believable magic into her work that makes you realize that magic is just another dimension of life.

In this month’s Writer’s Digest Hoffman is interviewed about her latest book, a young adult novel titled The Fortelling about a girl raised in the ancient Amazon culture. It’s interesting that two of my favorite novelists, Hoffman and Isabel Allende, have both turned to YA writing at this point in their careers. But in this interview Hoffman stated was asked about the popular term “magical realism” and gave an interesting response.

“I think it’s nonsense, honestly. Magic has always been a part of literature and I guess I come from the older tradition of folk tales, not realism,” she is quoted as saying. This is a response that I can genuinely appreciate. Years ago, when I was in college, I became fascinated by folk tales and took a few courses in the folk tale traditions of Europe and of the American mountain people. What you realize after reading these stories, in all their variations and from all parts of the world, is that there really are only a handful of story lines but each of those has endless variations depending on the personalities and characters of the people who are involved in them.

There is a folk tale from China that I have always loved. In it a young woman is married to a man she loves very, very much but they are only together a little while before he must leave her and go off to war. Years go by and when he finally returns he is a cold, hard, distant man, battle-scarred and brutal, whom she cannot get close to. She goes to a magician for help and the magician tells her he can make her a potion to cure her husband but he is lacking one ingredient that she must obtain for him — the eyelash of a ferocious tiger who lives far up in the mountains. The woman is terrified but determined. So she goes about her quest slowly taking food and special delicacies every day to the tiger. She approaches him respectfully and cautiously going no closer to him than the tiger will allow but letting him slowly trust her. Finally the tiger asks her what she wants. She tells him and he allows her to pluck a single eyelash which she swiftly takes to the magician. When she returns in triumph and presents the eyelash to the magician, the magician horrifies her by tossing it in the fire. When she objects, the magician says, “Now go back to your husband and approach him the same way you did the tiger.”

That’s a story Hoffman tells often, switching the genders of the tiger, but always keeping to the magic of the story — people get wounded, people get hurt, this makes them frightening until someone is brave enough to see the wound and approach with care. It is a magical story that makes for very fine reading.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Mermaid Shawl KAL #1: A Tricky Beginning


The Mermaid Shawl & other Beauties: Shawls, Cocoons, & Wraps (click cover above to enlarge) is now in production. The book will be available soon (we are planning on a December 1st release date.) It will be available as a digital download through this site. It will also be available from Amazon and other online booksellers in a paperback version. The book contains charts, photographs and written instruction for the original Mermaid Shawl (pictured in green suri alpaca above). There are also two variations --- The Gypsy Shawl in recycled sari silk, and the Shawl of Shooting Stars and Falling Leaves in wool.

In addition the book contains directions for Emily's Shawl (above), a rectangular lace shawl, as well as four additional lace scarves and stoles and two cocoons made from rectangular shawls.

See more pictures: The Mermaid Shawl & More Shawls

As promised anyone who has purchased The Old Mermaid's Tale (below) will receive a free e-book.

Kathleen Valentine's novel, The Old Mermaid's Tale, is now available from Amazon.com.

This shawl is perfect to wear while reading The Old Mermaid's Tale, a novel about love, loss, restoration,
and what happens to real-life mermaids. To read the fisrt chapter, click here.
The complete instructions, with color photographs, and updated instructions,
will be emailed free of charge to anyone who purchases
The Old Mermaid's Tale through Amazon.com.
Just email your order number to mermaid@valentine-design.com.
The file will be sent to you as soon as it is available.
Happy Knitting and Happy Reading!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

...And Then There’s Adelphia

I was talking to my sister Lisa about how hard I found it to watch the Enron movie and added I knew it would be even harder for her to watch something like that about Adelphia. Her voice became choked and she said, “I’ll never be able to be objective about that. No matter what.”

It is an ironic thing that both my sister and I should be connected to players in two of the greatest business scandals of this century. In Lisa’s case it is even closer — that’s what happens in small towns. Coudersport, Pennsylvania is nothing like Houston, Texas. Lisa moved there to take a teaching job over twenty years ago, married a local boy, bought a house, had two sons. She is a wonderful teacher in this very rural, very remote town and has taught a full generation of its children. Potter County Pennsylvania is one of the least populated counties in the state. For years its only industries were a small Sylvania plant and the logging in the surrounding forests. The people are good, down-to-earth country people.

One of the things Lisa did when she began teaching there was start an after-school club for kids to teach them how to sew. Basic things, threading a needle, mending a hem, sewing on a button. The kids loved it. Once Lisa and I were at a local gas station when a big, burly, bearded fellow noticed her and came over. “Hey, Mrs. Bretz, look,” he yelled plucking at the front of his flannel workshirt. “I lost a button and I sewed it back on myself.” And, even though the fellow stood a full head over her, Lisa examined the job he did and assured him it was fine. That’s the kind of place Coudersport is.

Adelphia chose Coudersport for its headquarters many years ago and, over the years, it grew and grew until it was the biggest deal in town. Everyone knew John Regis and his family, he was a part of everyone’s lives. When Lisa’s husband, Doug, got out of college he ran into John Regis in a local coffee shop and asked him if there were any job openings at Adelphia. He said he was just out of the Navy and college and his wife was pregnant. A week later he was working at Adelphia’s home office — he’s still there. At least for now.

John Regis loved Coudersport and he loved the people there. He did so much to improve their quality of life. He started other businesses, a Christmas tree farm and a beautiful nursery. He brought the Rochester Philharmonic there for an annual concert. He built a little spring-fed pond where people could come to get fresh mountain water and the children could feed the ducks and geese. He knew the names of the children and loved to talk to them. He made Coudersport a special place to live. Lisa and her family loved him. When the news of his corporate malfeasance broke, no one could believe it. They still can’t.

There is a half-completed golf course that Regis was building when the scandal broke. It now sits incomplete. There is a huge, beautiful marble and glass building in the town center that was to be Adelphia’s new home office. It is empty. A lot of beautiful homes sit empty too. As the company grew new employees were recruited from all over the country. They came to Coudersport eager for fresh country air and low cost of living but within a year or two they always left. There was nothing to do in Coudersport — not by their standards — and they moved on. Was John Regis trying to use money to enhance the cultural and entertainment venues in the town to keep employees? I don’t know. But that is a thing I have thought about.

We all make mistakes. I have an entire catalog of them. But the bigger the playing field we exist on, the correspondingly more huge are our mistakes. And then there comes the point where the mistakes multiply into something else. It is sad. What can people like my sister and her family believe? The John Regis they knew was a good, admirable man — he contributed a lot to their lives.

“If they ever make a movie like that about Adelphia,” Lisa said, “I wouldn’t be able to watch it.” That’s the thing about loving the goodness in people who do bad things — the heart has a hard time letting go.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Enron: How Do People Get Like That?

Back in the Eighties I was living in Houston, Texas and working in the art department of Houston Natural Gas which had recently merged with Internorth Corporation of Omaha, Nebraska. It was a difficult merger because nobody knew who was going where and what was going on. For awhile the company was called HNG/Internorth but it was soon apparent that they needed a new identity. We had a new, dynamic CEO and he hired a big NY ad firm to develop a new identity — much to the annoyance of those of us in the art department.

After spending an awful lot of money the NY firm came up with a corporate identity and, at a stockholders meeting at the Galleria, our CEO proudly unveiled the new company name — Enteron. There was a pause and then a series of giggles swept through the room. The word 'enteron’ is the medical name for the intestines, and people thought it was a joke. Our CEO was not happy.

The next day some mischief-makers posted a sign in the company lunch room in which the name Enteron was spelled out in curly, intestine-like letters above the slogan “The Company with Guts”. Everybody laughed but our new CEO, Ken Lay, did not. The “te” was dropped and the company became known as Enron.

I left Houston a couple years later and moved to New England but over the years, whenever I talked to former co-workers, I heard new stories — people weren’t happy, people were getting laid-off, the company was doing good but it wasn’t the old HNG that we all loved and loved to complain about. Finally, I didn’t know anyone who still worked there. Eventually, I was very glad of that.

I had been avoiding seeing the movie Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room but with Mr. Lay’s trial starting this week I decided it was time. I only met him a couple times while I worked there but somehow I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that he would have been party to what went on. The truth was, I didn’t really want to believe any of it. Even though I was long gone and even though I didn’t know anyone still there, it hurt. I worked there once. I had met this man and he even remembered my name when I saw him again. That was an important lesson I learned from Mr. Lay and have always cultivated — remember people’s names no matter what.

It was hard watching the movie. The settings were so familiar. When they showed footage of the old HNG building it could have been my office they were filming in. I loved working in downtown Houston and being a part of the energy business in Texas in the Eighties — before the Oil Bust, and the Enron Boom, and the Enron Disaster. I watched the movie twice. I couldn’t quite absorb everything in the first sitting and, when it was over, I kept thinking, “How could people do such things? How could they lie and cheat and manipulate like that? How did they get like that?"

In the movie Enron energy traders are heard on tape laughing over how many millions they are making for Enron by causing misery to the people of California by engineering rolling blackouts to boost energy prices. The filmmakers compare their behavior to the findings of the Milgram Obedience to Authority Experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale University in 1961-62. Milgram found that 65% of the subjects he studied would inflict what they believed was excruciating pain on the subject of their experiments when ordered to do so by an authority figure. It is a shocking experiment which would never be allowed in today’s politically correct world but one needs look no farther than the energy traders at Enron to see how valid it still is.

How do people get like that? How do people get to the point where they can knowingly and without being forced, or be in danger of being punished themselves, inflict damage and harm on fellow humans? It is hard to imagine and yet it is a thing many of us can see glimmers of familiarity in. I often repeat Victor Frankel’s observation that evil happens when good men do nothing. People who would be described by their neighbors as wonderful citizens can turn vile and hateful when they believe they will not be identified. People who would present themselves as pillars of the business community will orchestrate devastating damage if they believe they are serving a cause. It is clear from watching what happened at Enron that the line between good men and evil men is a very, very, very thin line.

This week Mr. Lay goes on trial. I am afraid this is going to be a terrible time for American business. I don’t want to believe someone whose hand I have shaken can be responsible for what happened at Enron. But even saying that I know that there is a blackness in nearly all of us and what can cause us to cross that line is a thing I hope I never encounter.

Thanks for reading.

Footnote: WOW! I just discovered that this blog page is linked to on the Houston Chronicle's Special Report on Enron page. We had over four hundred visitors from that page alone. Thanks, Houston Chronicle! (Whatever happened to Leon Hale?)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Happy Groundhog's Day: Time for a Mermaid Shawl KAL!!!

If you purchased Kathleen Valentine's novel The Old Mermaid's Tale and would like a free copy of the Mermaid Shawl section of the book in PDF format, please email: mermaid@valentine-design.com

A couple of years ago I created a shawl out of Knit Picks Suri Dream that I called the Mermaid Shawl. I posted pictures of it on my blog and I have been inundated with requests for the pattern ever since. I tried having a KAL and it went fairly well --- several people completed the shawl and sent photos but there were a few kinks I had to work out of the pattern and it has been on my To-Do list forever. Well, I'm finally doing it.

Yesterday my good friend Jane offered to act as model so I could take some pictures for a knitting book I am working on. I'm calling it The Mermaid Shawl & other Beauties: Shawls, Cocoons and Wraps. At present I have the Mermaid Shawl and two variations on it, two cocoons, and four shawls/scarves all of them featuring lacy stitch work and all of them easily adaptable by size. It is my intention to have the book ready by the first of the year.

Here are three of the designs that will be featured. Below is the original Mermaid Shawl in Suri Dream. I also have a variation called the Gypsy Shawl made from recycled sari silk.

This one is a striped, open-work rectangle made with Knit Picks Shimmer, an alpaca and silk blend. It works up fast and gets it's soft color changes by knitting with two strands held together in alternating changes. (That's my car in the background.)

And this is a rather fanciful wrap made of recycled raw silk from a thrift store sweater that I unraveled. I realize people will not be able to find a similar sweater but it is a good example of how you can turn odd finds into treasures.

In addition to the patterns I want to write about how I adapt patterns and designs to accommodate available stash, how to transform a problem piece into something entirely new, and other random things I have discovered in my 40+ years of knitting. I'm even including a short story that tells a fictional account of the origin of the Mermaid Shawl. As promised, those who have written to tell me they purchased and read The Old Mermaid's Tale, will get a free copy of the book as soon as it is available. I'm going to post more designs later this week.

I want to thank Jane for being such a lovely model. I also want to thank Tom Ellis for conveniently positioning the Thomas E. Lannon Schooner off Ten Pound Island while we were shooting. He didn't know about it but I thank him anyway. This is the proposed cover. What do you think? Would you buy this book?

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The High Cost of Being Thrifty

Use it up, wear it out.
Make it do or do without.
- Old Pennsylvania Dutch mantra

It’s amazing how much money you can spend being thrifty. As the oldest of eight children, growing up in a Pennsylvania Dutch family being “handy” and “thrifty” were virtues right ahead of being honest and modest — though slightly behind being industrious. In most ways I think being brought up to be thrifty is a good thing but the truth is we live in a culture that tends to make you feel there is something faintly obscene in that. Waste makes my skin crawl and passing up a really good bargain seems not dissimilar from cheating on your spouse (which, thank God, I don’t have to worry about.)

I was talking with Jane about this today because we are both a little nuts in this area. Jane says when she gets that screaming need for some retail therapy she makes the rounds of her favorite thrift shops, consignment shops, and second hand stores. We have a great store here called Second Glance. You never know what you will find there but I have come home with amazing treasures and change from a ten dollar bill. Jane has a collection of cashmere sweaters and silk blouses that would please any princess at, all told, less than the cost of one of them.

My friend Trudi told me one of the funniest stories I have ever heard about this. One of her friends is a thrift shop junkie and one of her favorite shops has a buck-a-bag day on Thursdays. For a dollar you can fill up a whole sack. Her friend made her weekly visit on buck-a-bag day and found a beautiful sweater, practically new, and in a color she loved. She put it in the bag but then couldn’t find anything else she wanted and so wound up leaving the store empty-handed because she couldn’t fill the bag. She said when she got home and realized what she had done she decided her thriftiness had gone way too far. I wish I had that problem. I would have done the opposite. I would have found enough to fill the bag if it took me the rest of the day because there would be no way I’d leave without it.

What got me thinking about this is a huge – I mean HUGE — cardboard box that is sitting in the living room at the moment filled with yards and yards and yards of deliciously soft, beautiful 100% cotton knit fabric in wonderful colors that the UPS guy delivered today. The UPS guys all know me. So do a lot of the eBay vendors.

Look, I love fabric. I’ve said it many times before. So if some nice lady in Virginia buys out the entire stock of a children’s clothing manufacturer that is going out of business and sells this beautiful, superb quality fabric for next to nothing — well, it would just be criminal to pass it up. I have enough soft, lovely pure cotton knit to make teeshirts for Rhode Island — for under $30! And they are much better quality than anything you would buy at JJill or the Gap, too.

Last night I went through a couple closets and filled two Hefty bags with clothes. Tomorrow I’ll drop them off at a Salvation Army bin. The clothes in them are made of wonderful fabrics that I got at unbelievable prices and hand-crafted with exquisite detail. Some large-sized ladies out there are going to feel like queens when they hit the thrift shops in their neighborhoods.

I figure buying all this gorgeous fabric, sewing it, wearing it for awhile, and then passing it on is sort of my way of improving the world’s level of luxury. It’s like the story of the man who told his friend that he had a forty year old bottle of fine Irish whiskey hidden in his house and he wanted his friend to promise that, after he was dead, the friend would take the bottle to his gravesite and pour it over the tomb. His friend thought about it for a moment and then said, “Well, of course I will. But would you mind if I passed it through my body first?”

Thanks for reading.