Friday, March 31, 2006
Mark was raking leaves out from under the hedges and sweeping the sidewalks. The tide was rolling in as we talked and the salt marsh that surrounds his house was filling up with shimmering, bright water. It was beautiful.
I left him to his yardwork and cruised out along the back shore and then out Eastern Point to the lighthouse. Eastern Point Lighthouse sits, in my opinion, in one of the most glorious places I have ever seen. The lighthouse stands on a promontory overlooking a breakwater. There is a marsh filled with birds behind it, the ocean sweeps around it on two sides and then there is the outer harbor. If you climb the breakwater you can see Boston to the south, Gloucester Harbor to the north with City Hall sparkling over the city and the gleaming blue towers of Our Lady of Good Voyage Church just past that with the statue of the Madonna cradling a fishing schooner in her arms between them, her hand raised in blessing over the harbor.
And on the far shore there are castles — two of them. What is it about castles? The sight of them stirs up romantic fantasies that lie buried in our subconscious from childhood tales of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty to the tales of King Arthur and Merlin and Tristan and Isolde that filled my teenage imagination.
Both of our castles were built sometime in the early part of the Twentieth century by the Hammond family. The southern castle was built by John Hays Hammond, as eccentric a fellow as ever lived. I have been inside it many times both on tours and for parties. Hammond did an interesting thing. He travelled Europe buying up pieces of crumbling castles and shipped them back here to be patched together in one of the most strange and intriguing conglomerations of a castle you could ask for. The castle has evolved a lot in the 20 years since I first visited it. Back then it was in bad disrepair. Parts of it were closed to the public because it was too dangerous. But over the years it has benefitted from some intelligent planning and is now well used for many events, private rentals, concerts, the annual Robin Hood Faire, etc.
One of the most wonderful evenings I can remember was a concert I attended in the castle’s great hall a few years back. It was a chamber ensemble, a program of mostly Brahms and Mozart, which began just at dusk. Candles were lit in the tall iron sconces and the diamond-paned windows were open to the saltwater breezes. The soft roll of waves breaking over rocks accompanied the music. My sister Christine was with me. That evening served as the inspiration for one of the most magical chapters in my first novel.
The second castle is far more mysterious. It was built by Hammond’s father and stands just outside Gloucester Harbor. It is owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and is not open to the public. That veil of mystery just adds to its fascination.
Every time I drive around the back shore, which is usually every day, I notice them with appreciation. I think everyone should have castles on their far shore, something ancient and romantic and mysterious and beautiful. Something to make you dream.
Thanks for reading.
Thursday, March 30, 2006
Last night I began reading Henry Beston’s The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. How did I miss that book until now? This is a book to be read slowly and savored for the sheer beauty of the language. Beston, as a writer, is a craftsman of the first order. And his subject matter, living alone on a Cape Cod Beach, is compelling.
I’ve always been intrigued by people who do this sort of thing — make the choice to leave the world and live alone in a wild and beautiful place to just observe, savor, record and love. Annie Dillard did it in Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek and, of course. Thoreau’s books about life on Walden Pond, walking Cape Cod, and other New England rambles show that to love something is to give it your full and unwavering attention and, in so doing, you get back gifts that no amount of writing and recording can fully demonstrate.
Most of us live in walls of ever moving sights and sounds. That makes me crazy. Televisions that are on constantly, music played loudly all the time, everyone coming and going. I can’t handle it. When I worked in Houston and in Boston I wondered how people could bear to be in the midst of so much activity day in and day out. Where do their souls find rest?
Beston’s book records meticulous details of birds and salt grasses, waves and sea creatures, and the evolution of his heart and soul as he allows them to be the focus of his attention on a daily basis. Once, shortly after I moved to Marblehead, I took a long weekend and drove down to Wellfleet, just across the Cape from where Beston built his cottage. It was late fall but warm and I found a room in a nearly empty motel sitting directly on the beach. My original intention had been to spend a couple days exploring Provincetown and Truro but a couple hours walking around those towns was enough and I found myself back in my motel sitting at the table in front of the sliding glass doors watching the tide move up the beach. For the next two days I walked the beach, filled legal pads with words, drank pot after pot of tea, and savored the beauty of the light. It was wonderful. It changed me and, since that time, I’ve never been happy in bustling, noisy places. I want the light on the moving water, the sound of gulls in the air, and the interplay of my attention and the millions of tiny mysteries that light and air, water and nature gift you with.
For seven years I lived in a house at the end of Peaches Point in Marblehead, as I said in my last blog. Part of the time I shared the house with the woman who owned it but when she became ill and eventually died, I stayed on there alone for another three years. Though I had a job that required me to leave that place each day, I always came home with gratitude for the gift of it. I was there through every season — snowfalls that trapped me in for a day or two until the plows came by, showers of autumn leaves that turned the lawn sweeping down to the ocean fiery red, the so-called Perfect Storm when the house shook so violently the water sloshed out of the toilets, and summers — glorious, quiet, crystal blue summers. I had pheasants in the bittersweet hedge and owls in the garden shed and squirrels, dozens of squirrels, emptying my bird feeders and playing hockey with acorns on the roof. When you are given such a gift you try to love it back — you pay attention.
Thanks for reading.
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
I went out as I often do around 11 to run a few errands and was dumbfounded by how beautiful it was outside. The waves were particularly high rolling in from Portugal or Greenland or wherever it is our waves come from. The sky was bright summer blue and the water just a little deeper blue but that shimmering, luminescent aquamarine color where the light shines through the waves as they stretch upward before curling over into pearly foam. It was gorgeous. I put the top down.
I bought my first convertible shortly after my mother died. I’m a little sorry about that because I think she would have loved it. Whenever she came to visit me we would take long slow drives up Route 1A along the ocean. She loved the ocean and could never get enough of it. Having grown up in the Allegheny Highlands her only experience of large bodies of water was Lake Erie. When she came to visit me in Texas she saw the Gulf of Mexico but it wasn’t until I moved to Marblehead that she saw the Atlantic Ocean on her first visit to me. At the time I was housesitting a large house one Peaches Point in Marblehead that overlooked Salem Harbor. From the deck you could see all the way from the Salem Lighthouse to Hospital Point Light in Beverly, to Baker’s Island Lighthouse and on out to Eastern Point Light here in Gloucester. She would sit on that deck for hours and hours.
My first convertible was a red Mustang. I bought it from the wonderful Jack Adams at Pre-Owned Auto in Salem. I remember that day perfectly. It was a cold, rainy April day and I had to buy a new car. Since Jack had sold me my last two cars I went back to him. He’s the best. I was in a bad mood, still mourning my mother’s passing and not sure what I wanted to do with my life — again. I test drove a few cars but nothing grabbed me. Then Jack handed me the keys to a little red Mustang convertible and said, “Just take it for a spin.” I thought why not? “I’m warning you though,” Jack said. “Don’t put the top down.”
I drove to Marblehead and, as I started to cross the causeway to the Neck the rain stopped and the sun burst out brilliantly. I pulled over on Devereaux Beach and put the top down. It was FABULOUS! I cruised around the Neck twice and then drove back to Jack’s place on Canal Street. He was standing in the doorway with his hands on his hips. “I told you not to put the top down,” he said.
“Why?” I asked. “Because now you’ll want it,” he said. He was right. I bought it. I never regretted it for one teensy second and, when it turned over 200,000 miles, I took it back to Jack and traded it in on the white Chrysler Sebring convertible I have now.
So yesterday, with the sun shining and the breezes rolling in off the ocean, I put the top down and cruised the back shore. It was as delicious as that first ride around Marblehead Neck so many years ago. I drove out Eastern Point and then out the State Fish Pier where Mark intercepted me in his truck. “You’re topless,” he said laughing. “Yeah,” I told him. “It’s wonderful.”
We pulled over to talk as we have so many times before — the fisherman in the copper-colored truck (he says it’s pink) and the blonde in the white convertible. His fisherman buddies waved at us as we sat talking. Summer’s coming for sure now. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Thanks for reading.
Monday, March 27, 2006
Unfortunately City Hall has seen its share of neglect and was, in fact, closed for nearly a year so the roof and roof supports could be reinforced but it is open once again and busy as always. The street I live on dead-ends two blocks up, directly in front of City Hall. It is an everyday part of my life, as it is for many Gloucester residents, and I always enjoy it. The clock on the tower tells the correct time, in winter a blue light flashes from the tower when there is a snow emergency, and for a long time, there was a web cam pointed toward the harbor mounted in one of the turrets. It isn't working these days which is too bad.
City Hall also has a resident who is growing in fame and popularity. A Peregrine Falcon who has lived in the tower for several years now. The photo at left (and the one at right above) was taken by bird-lover Jim Barber of Gloucester whose message board, For the Birds, attracts birders across the country. His photographs of City Hall's most magnificent resident can be seen on his board. As many times as I have looked up and seen the falcon, sometimes with a friend, soaring around the turrets, I never fail to stop and take a breath. It is a glorious sight.
But the most famous feature of City Hall is inside in the stairwell leading up to the second and third floors. There, stenciled on the walls, are the names --- five thousand of them --- of Gloucester Fishermen lost at sea. The photo at right by Gloucester photographer Nubar Alexanian is one of my favorites because the light shining through the windows seems to form a cross over the names of all the lost fishermen. The list begins in 1716 with Jeremiah Allen, though in truth Gloucestermen had been going to sea for nearly a hundred years before the list began. When I was working at the City hall Sculpture Show in 1997 my desk was directly at the top of the stairs on the second floor where the names spread out before me. I spent many hours, when visitors were few, reading those names and trying to imagine their lives --- and the ends of their lives. These days I have a special attachment to that place because Mark's book F/V Black Sheep ends in that stairwell and, since the first time I read his book, I have been achingly aware that his book came close to not being written --- and his name came close to being on that wall.
So today when I go out to do my errands I will pass City Hall several times. I have to go to the library and the post office both of which adjoin it. I'll look for the falcon. I'll think about the names on the wall --- and the name not on the wall.
Thanks for reading.
Sunday, March 26, 2006
Friday, March 24, 2006
I know I’ve raved about it before but Mark has written a remarkable book! The plain truth of the matter is some writers — real writers — just have a natural gift. You can learn to write, you can take courses, join groups, get degrees and certifications and you may well wind up a darn fine writer but then a guy like Mark comes along who hasn’t written anything more complex than his daily loran coordinates and writes something as remarkable as this book. You can’t help but think it ain’t fair. What blew me away when I first started working on it was how he structured the book. It opens with a fairly explosive first chapter then goes back in time to his youth working on the docks in Gloucester and carries the reader forward through story after story until you reach the final chapter which is the resolution and conclusion to the first one. He did all that on his own before he met me.
My job has been to edit, refine, clarify. Clarification has been a big job. For all the years he worked as a lobsterman he went through his daily routines without a whole lot of thought to the step-by-step processes involved. Once he began writing he had to go back and re-examine all the steps he took in order to describe them. Once I began reading I would say to him, “Okay, I don’t get this... you say you use the davit here but what the heck is a davit?” He would stare at me for a minute as though finding it hard to believe that anyone could get through their day without using several davits, and then go back to his truck to try to describe a davit.
For the entire first summer of our collaboration we meet several times a week to work on chapter after chapter — I couldn’t believe how many of them there were! I call this process “twiddle and tweak”. You twiddle with the language here to make it flow better, you tweak the description there to make it clear. We met out at Good Harbor Beach a lot. Sometimes we would go to Halibut Point for a couple drinks — our collaboration turned into a social relationship that was good for both of us. We are both solitary creatures by nature and it became both pleasant and difficult to have another person become such a regular part of each other’s lives.
Sometimes I would read a chapter and question whether we should include it. He didn’t like that. Sometimes I would read a chapter and laugh as I read or be dazzled by his ability to so meticulously observe and record the natural world in which he spent his days alone. When I read “Garand Afternoon”, a brutal description of a territorial war between Mark and another fisherman that builds to a deadly climax, I was so shaken I couldn’t sleep that night and wound up writing him a letter at 2 in the morning saying that I would spend as much time and energy as I could to help him get this book to print. It was that remarkable.
Yesterday we were having coffee at Cape Ann Coffee and looking at cover designs for the book. This winter has been long and filled with delays and some conflicts over the legal issues that have to be considered in books like this. Both of us were pretty naive about that, Jane from our Hovey House Writers Group helped tremendously. We live in a nastily litigious world. Even the best of friends, when they smell the money, can turn on each other. We don’t want that to happen. But we are getting close. The beginning of May will hopefully see F/V Black Sheep in print.
Later, I said to Mark that this was getting very real, that he was almost there. He smiled and started his truck and then said in that quiet voice of his, “Yeah, well ... see you tomorrow.”
Thanks for reading.
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
So, as a writer of fiction, the lessons learned as a belly dancer are rather useful. What it all boils down to is piquing interest, keeping interest, and then satisfying interest without overdoing it. It’s quite a balancing act.
I have been thinking about this because I am trying to finish up the short story I plan to submit to the next Level Best anthology. The idea is good, I think, the people who have read have liked it but I’m struggling with the ending. For me crime is a lot harder to write than romance. I’ve blogged before about my quest to reclaim romance to its origins — the romance of James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Romance that is more rich with adventure and beauty and explorations of the heart and mind than a lot of heavy breathing and pretentious couplings. But writing crime is a challenge. It requires the writer to explore a situation without giving away too much too soon. It’s a lot like flirting.
Without going into detail the story I am working on is a short exploration of the thought process of someone who has been very hurt and consoles herself plotting revenge. The big question is, can she keep the plans in her head or will they eventually demand exercise. And that brings me to my current dilemma — how to end the story. How far down that path can I take the reader and still leave them interested in this character?
I remember all those stories we read in school that drove me nuts with unresolved endings. “The Lady and The Tiger” made me crazy. I wanted to know which came out of the cave at the end. I thought surely there must be a place somewhere that gave the answer — in the back of the book, printed upside down so you had to turn the book around like you do for the answers to a crossword puzzle. Or maybe there was somewhere you could write to, maybe you had to pay to find out. Clearly, I was not a kid who was going to be good with unanswered questions.
One of the things I love most about writing is having the opportunity to be inside a character’s mind and to skulk around and see what mysteries are there. As I have been working on this story it occurred to me that all three of my Level Best crime stories have something in common — they are all written in the first person from the point of view of an unnamed female protagonist who commits a crime — or contemplates committing a crime — out of a deep internal wound. One of my test readers — God bless my test readers — asked why my protagonists never have a name. Good question. But the answer comes easily — many women are wounded (many people are wounded) and the difference between the person who believes they have a reason to commit a crime and the one who actually does it can be pretty slim. I find that interesting.
So now here I sit with one story and two endings — which will I choose? Stay posted......
Thanks for reading.
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
But an alley is a wonderful thing for a child. Our alley was narrow and rutted and overgrown by the overly ambitious lilacs and roses and currant bushes and apple trees that neighbors had filled their gardens with. As houses changed hands, gardeners were no longer readily available, and lives became busier and busier, the gardens spread wherever they could and mostly this was into the alley.
When I was little the trees had grown together forming a canopy over the alley. Tangles of climbing flowers covered the fences that had been erected along the backs of properties and in the height of summer you could pick currants and blackberries and small, hard apples while you played. But the best thing about alleys was the treasures you sometimes found.
We had a family of cousins who lived across the alley. My brother Jack and I would meet them in the alley and sometimes we went by ourselves. Usually our trips included hunting for treasure and there was treasure a-plenty — pieces of broken tiles in interesting colors, cracked teacups, old wooden toys, heads of dolls, silver spoons and forks. Each summer we started a stash in a secret place and added to it whenever we could. Once I found a bird carved out of stone and coated in moss that must have broken off of a garden fountain. That was my best find for years.
I have been thinking about my early beginnings as a treasure hunter, stalking ancient mysteries in that alley because of some intriguing books that have come my way. There is a big rise in intellectual thrillers, a trend I am delighted by. It began years ago with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and has grown both in popularity and accessibility for two decades now. Recently I have become enamored with the books of British writer David Hewson. Mostly they are set in Italy and always they involve wonderfully mysterious locations — secret vaults in the Vatican, half-excavated tunnels beneath Rome, ancient palazzos in Venice. I curl up on the couch with Hewson’s books and get lost in them like I did in my long ago alley.
There is something delicious about ancient places, half gone to ruin, filled with mysteries that whisper of a terrible and fascinating past. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina I found myself seeking out novels about New Orleans and I came upon two books by John Ed Bradley, Restoration and My Juliet, both set in the French Quarter and filled with the sort of things I love — old rooms, overgrown gardens, and alleys. There is a delicious section in John Berendt’s wonderful non-fiction book, The City of Falling Angels, a recounting of his own experiences in Venice after the burning of the Fenice Opera House. In it he tells how excavation down through the floors of one ancient villa led to the floor of a thirteenth century palazzo where Marco Polo once lived — and there were several floors beneath that!
I think there is something very seductive about the ancient mysteries held by abandoned places, neglected places, or just the foundations that have been over-built. There is something in the human psyche that shivers with delight over who might have passed this way before and the things they might have done. These books are a welcome addition to my literary world. They tantalize my imagination while reminding me of the child I used to be.
Thanks for reading.
Monday, March 20, 2006
There is a core group that gathers and then, beyond that, the numbers vary from few to many. The attraction is simply the pleasure of getting together with a group of other women who like keeping our hands busy while enjoying one another’s company and it is fine company indeed.
Gwen is the core around which we all gather. She is funny and intelligent and accommodating. She loves the Community House which once served the town of Rockport as a school and now is being preserved by the town as a meeting place. There is a monthly book sale, meetings scheduled throughout the week from the garden club to the community chorus and cub scouts to the historical society. Gwen manages it all scheduling the meetings, managing the income and bills, helping to raise funds, and, in her spare time, she is writing a history of that sweet old building.
It is a wonderful place! The big wooden floors creak as you walk across them and light pours in through huge, tall windows as it did on the heads of little scholars a century or more ago. Saturday the light was especially beautiful. One of the members of our group has been taking stained glass classes and brought three of her pieces to show. We asked her to hang them in the windows where the light could shine in and it was glorious! A dragonfly, a man in the moon, and a speckled trout shimmered and glittered as we worked tinting the light with hundreds of colors. Her workmanship is exquisite and her pieces were a delight to watch through the day.
Once the community chorus was practicing in the front room as we worked in a back room. That was a treat! Chorus North Shore under the direction of Sonja Dahlgren Pryor has gained a lot of recognition and accolades for our communities and having the pleasure of sitting together with our work as we listened to them rehearse their Easter program last year made the day even more special.
We always bring food — too much food. Amazingly, though we never say what we are bringing, it always works out to be fairly well-balanced. This week Maureen made roasted vegetables with apples and raisins in it, I brought my vegetable & pasta salad, and Connie brought a fresh veggie tray. Fortunately all that healthy food was balanced by Sandy’s delicious brownies, Chandra’s cheesecake and Rebecca’s dark Belgian chocolates. We have occasionally been short on veggies but never on chocolate.
So we sit together in the sunny schoolroom where children once learned to read and write. Gwen, Florence, Connie and I knit. Rebecca is quilting pillow tops. Maureen is teaching Sandy to crochet. Clare is knitting a tiny sweater for her niece’s American Girl Doll. Once she perfects the pattern she plans to sell them on eBay. And we talk. We talk and talk and talk. We discuss things going on in the community, what we are reading, what is going on in the world, what new projects we have in mind, what events are coming up that we are looking forward to. We talk about our troubles, lend one another support, and teach each other new stitches. Sometimes new people come in with a stalled project they want to get back on track with or simply with a desire to learn to knit or crochet. A couple years ago a twelve year old girl from across the street wandered in. We found extra needles and extra yarn and taught her to knit. By the time the next summer came she had a table at the sidewalk bazaar selling her hand-knitted scarves.
I love community life. I love the warmth of being with people I may never see except at these meetings. Most of all I love being together with a group of women who like keeping hands busy while sharing ideas and thoughts — and food. Our needlework group is a sweet, old-fashioned respite from a world that moves too fast. We are lucky.
Thanks for reading.
Friday, March 17, 2006
My friend Sharon sent the pictures. She works part time at the Houston Zoo and keeps me updated on all the goings on there. This is happy news --- especially for Mama Giraffe as she has lost her last three babies.
Sharon is one of the most devoted animal lovers that I have ever met. She takes in kitties and works for a spay/neuter program and also at the zoo. We met when I lived in Houston. I was working downtown at HNG (later Enron) and always caught the bus in front of the Entex building. I noticed a tall, attractive womnan with really great hair and one day --- Texas being Texas and everyone being very warm and friendly --- I struck up a conversation with her. We have been friends ever since. When Sharon began working at the zoo a few years back she often sent emails full of information of the things she was doing and the people she was meeting --- especially the four-legged people, and the ones with feathers and scales and fur. I wish now I had saved them because they were always full of fascinating stories about life in a very large and very well-run zoo. The births of new babies is always high on the list of excitement when she writes.
A few years back there was a new baby elephant that was rejected by its mother. It was a sad story because the little baby, named Bella, was so bereft and the zookeepers tried their best to care for her and keep her company and make her feel loved but, alas, poor little Bella was still motherless. Sharon bought polar fleece and made her little jackets to keep her warm. Everyone did their best to love her but eventually Bella didn't make it. Everyone was sad but the elephant experts said that things like that happen --- that Mama Elephant probably sensed that baby was weak and rejected her for that reason. In the wild no one would ever have known. But losing Bella was hard for a lot of people, myself included and I didn't even know her.
It is hard for me to imagine living in day to day contact with such huge and amazing creatures. I love it when Sharon sends a letter filled with description about a day spent with a new arrival. When the Golden Tamarind Monkeys had babies, she sent pictures that were these tiny, funny gold faces peaking out from the leaves of a tree. She once sent a picture someone took of her holding and petting a huge --- I mean HUGE --- snake.
At right is another of her giraffe babies, this one born a few years ago. Just look at that face! He's grown up now and living in another zoo. Let's hope Baby Nigel does as well.
Like most of us I have reservations about wild animals living in zoos but, with the world as it is today, even those who live in the wild are so constrained by human incursion that their lives aren't as wild as they were a century ago. Most of the animals in zoos now were bred in captivity and would have no chance of survival if returned to the wild.
The Houston Zoo had an old gorilla who died last year. He was one of the oldest gorillas in captivity and, when he passed on, Sharon said she often wondered if he dreamed of the jungles and plains he had never known. She wished that for him in the next life. As long as there are people like Sharon in this world to love and care for these beautiful animals, I guess I can feel okay about them being in captivity. I'm just really glad she shares her experience with me through her letters.
Thanks for reading.
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Which brings me to my next project, the shimmer shawl I have been working on (left) forever is finally done! It is beautiful and very light - a great summer shawl. I made it from KnitPick's lovely alpaca and silk yarn called Shimmer in four colors worked by holding two strands of this laceweight yarn together. As you can see it is quite lovely. It is a long rectangle, 28" wide and 80" long with deep fringe and the pattern is very simple - just a simple leaf pattern all the way from one end to the next. The colors are rich jewel tones and will look great in summer.
KnitPicks has come up with a lot of great new summer yarns. I was looking at their catalogue and they have some wonderful new colors in their 100% Pima Cotton Crayon yarn. I was so pleased with the Pink Crayon that I ordered that I placed an order for more of it in the new Azure and the new Periwinkle. They arrived today and they are beautiful. This Pima Cotton is so light and soft it is delicious to work with. It will be perfect for summer sweaters or wraps.
Other than that I have been mostly experimenting with some new yarns and some new patterns. The piece at left is a scarf i have started in an intriguing and unnamed pattern I found in an old knitting book. It is very easy to learn and is going really fast. The yarn I am using for it fabulous --- 100% pure cashmere from Colourmart in Shropshire, England. They buy their cashmere from a cooperative in Wales and it is so soft and beautiful it is hard to believe. Richard, who owns Colourmart, is awfully nice --- I love his emails --- ("dreadfully sorry but I seem to be out of that color at the moment...") and very accommodating. Postage is low and delivery is fast! What's not to like? Their yarn is available on eBay.
It's hard to see the pattern in the sample at left. I have a very old knitting book that calls this pattern Shooting Star but I think it is the very same as the Frost Flowers pattern that is so popular right now. The yarn is the same K1C2 Angora Soft that I am making the Mermaid Shawl II out of but in a bright coral color. I don't know what I'm going to do with it but I wanted to learn that stitch. it looks so complex but once you get the hang of it, it is very pleasant to work on. Since it is worked over 34 stitches, it is good for laceweight yarn. I think I've about got it memorized now.
And this beautiful thing is another of Leslie Wind's gorgeous, hand-made shawl pins. This one is in bronze but she also has it in silver. The back is the double hook closure that I am partial to. She gave it to me last night when we had dinner and I wore it on my original Mermaid Shawl and it looked beautiful. She has several new designs that I intend to photograph and get posted eventually. One is a stunning, long hairpin shaped pin that I love. She is doing such beautiful work with these pins. Visit her web site or email her to find out more!!!
Thanks for reading.
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Sometimes it is just the two of us but gradually more and more people have started joining us and the evenings are just plain wonderful. Last night five of us spent four hours over one antipasto, two pizzas and two bottles of wine. The conversation was exceptional.
In addition to our involvement in the arts, all of us are writers and, more importantly, all of us are very involved with community projects. It is the latter which always seems to be the topic of conversation. I actually met B.L. when she and I volunteered at the Gloucester City Hall Sculpture Show. I met Evelyn by being involved in the Frederick Mulhaupt Retrospective and Symposium. Leslie I got to know through her wonderful Know Your Neighbor evenings and Jane and Leslie and I started the Hovey House Writer’s Group. All of them are brilliant women with endless talents and intelligence and a strong commitment to contributing to our community.
Last night part of the conversation concerned an upcoming fund-raiser for the Essex Shipbuilding Museum in Essex. It is lovely little museum that honors Essex’s distinguished heritage of building the fishing schooners that fished most of the east coast for generations. The museum is desperately in need of funds. Jane and Evelyn have a plan and, as they explained the details, the rest of us grew increasingly excited about it. This is going to be an incredible event!
I’ve often joked that when a group of artists (whenever I say “artists” I mean painters, writers, musicians, actors, etc.) get together and start talking about ideas it is rather like the old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movies where they say, “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show!” Everybody gets excited, everybody has an area in which they can contribute something, everybody puts their ideas in and, in the end, something wonderful usually results.
It was B.L. who started such an event in the summer of 2002 when the entire country was reeling from the attack of September 11 the previous year. She said we needed to create a multi-disciplinary arts event to honor the heroes of that day. It turned out to be an extraordinary event with a moving art exhibition and a performance that people still talk about all these years later featuring artists in all fields — dancers Carl Thomsen and Ina Hahn, poets Vincent Ferrini and SueEllen Wedmore, actress Nan Webber, musicians Herb Pomeroy and the Egmont Trio. It was a day I’ll never forget. And it all began when B.L. said, “We should do something.”
Of all the things I love about being in the company of creative spirits it is that their creativity seems boundless. Last night we talked and talked, we talked about art and our lives and the things we love and our shared love of Cape Ann where all of us have gathered from other parts of the country because it is just plain glorious to be here. It was nearly 10 when I got home.
I can’t wait for next Tuesday.
Thanks for reading.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
This will be the third story I have submitted to Level Best. “Asa”, the story in the 2004 anthology Riptide, was rejected at first by them but then, when I made a few alterations per their suggestion, it was published. “Home-made Pie and Sausage” in the 2005 anthology Windchill has been well received and has been nominated for a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Writer’s Society. That’s exciting. This year I wanted to submit again but, since I have spent the past year laboring over a collection of short stories, I wasn’t sure I had it in me to produce yet another story.
Skye Alexander said it could be about any crime — it didn’t have to be about murder. I thought about that and realized that murder is the only crime that interests me. Why do people do it? When they do it, do they think about getting caught or do they even care? If you are driven to kill someone are you too crazy to worry about covering up what you’ve done? And the big thing is when it comes down to it, can you actually do it? That was the question I wanted to explore in the latest story.
In “Asa” the killer got away with her crime, in “Home-made Pie and Sausage” the killer was so emotionally damaged and bent on revenge that I doubt she cared if she got caught. Several people said that to me after reading the story — “does she think she’s going to get away with it?” My thought was that not only do I think she doesn’t care, in some senses I think she hopes people find out what she did. It would certainly complete the revenge!
So the next aspect of murder I wanted to think about was ‘can she go through with it?’ Writing about murder is interesting because it forces you to go to places in your mind you usually avoid. Of course, that is what makes being a writer fun, you can think about things that a normal person probably doesn’t — or shouldn’t.
My writing habit is a bit odd. I write my first drafts by hand sitting in my car somewhere. Virtually all 120,000 words of my w-i-p Triad were written on yellow legal pads on the fish pier or at Niles Beach. Once I have a rough first draft done, I come inside and fire up the ‘puter. It’s weird but it seems to work for me.
So, I took a legal pad out to the beach and was deeply into working on my story when a car pulled up close beside me — a cop car. The door pops open and out steps a big cop who, fortunately, turned out to be my friend Larry. I maintain his web site for him and he wanted to pay me for some work, saw me parked there, and stopped. “I can’t talk,” I told him, “I’m planning a murder.” He asked who I was planning to kill.
Larry’s a writer also. He has co-written a three volume history of the Gloucester Police Department, Behind the Badge. He understands. He took care of business and then went off on an attempted break-in call. It was good to see him for a few minutes.
It took all weekend but it worked. The story is now ready for a few critiques, some polishing up, and then submission. I emailed a copy of it to Larry to read and he emailed back that he liked it. He’s a cop (though a writer-cop) and he liked my murder story? That’s good enough for me!
Thanks for reading.
Saturday, March 11, 2006
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.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
Marc was a medic in a combat battalion in 1970. His life since returning from Vietnam has been both creative and difficult. He has been involved in a number of Vietnam vet support groups and therapies and has used his creativity to help work his way through the legacy of the year he served in Vietnam.
He described for us the process whereby the text for the performance was created and his collaboration with the other vets who contributed to the work as well as with Carl Thomsen and Jeffry Steele, the composer who created the score. He began the evening by showing a few minutes of a video he created several years ago which he both wrote the text for and narrates. It is powerful stuff.
I have to say I found much of the evening painful and difficult to listen to but I don’t think that is entirely bad. Sometimes we have to experience pain and discomfort to understand what is going on with another. In the case of the veterans of wars like Vietnam, and like present day Iraq, I don’t think it is ever even remotely possible to understand what those people are going through. That’s why performances like Silent Men Speaking are so necessary.
Several fellow veterans attended at Marc’s invitation and watching them listen to him talk, listening to their input after was equally devastating. All of it made me think, not for the first time, why do we do these things to one another? I understand that war has been around since the first bunch of cavemen got mad at each other over the best caves to live in but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to accept. One of the vets asked why there was no mention made of the Vietnamese people in the performance. He talked about his own experiences and about the horrors of torture — both to the tortured and to those who did the torture. He talked about the things we, the folks back home, are not supposed to know about — that both sides torture and that the soldiers who do these things carry them with themselves for the rest of their lives. This is one of those horrors that I know but don’t want to know.
I’ve thought about the nature of war and the classic man’s inhumanity to man a lot through the current war in Iraq. When all the furor broke out over the torture of prisoners in Abu Gharib, all I could think of was how are these young people going to live with themselves in years to come? I know that the other side does these things and worse but I’ve never been good at accepting answering atrocities with worse atrocities. After seeing Silent Men Speaking and listening to Marc and his fellow vets last night I know the answer to how they are going to live with themselves — they are going to live in emotional pain and psychological torment that none of the rest of us can begin to understand.
There is a lot of praise and patriotism for the soldiers who are fighting in Iraq, a very different scenario from the treatment of soldiers in Vietnam. I wonder if that will make a difference. I don’t think it will. I know that my father and his brothers, all veterans of World War II — that noble and righteous war, never got over the pain of what they lived through even knowing they did the right thing in a time of madness.
One member of the group spoke about the power of art to bring brutally raw emotions before the world and illuminate the darkness that these men live with. Art is powerful and art can expose festering wounds to the healing sunlight but, even more importantly, art can ask why in God’s name we do this to one another. Marc Levy is a brave man and has contributed to art and to humanity with his work. Let’s just hope that we get the message — that everyone does.
Thanks for reading.
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
In it she writes about her family and has pasted pictures, probably cut from women’s magazines, throughout. It is a sweet story but one of the things I am struck by is how she often describes women in her family as being beautiful and wishes she was like them. Rereading it I was struck by her lack of self-confidence in that area.
Growing up I always thought my mother was beautiful. I suppose most girls do. She was very tall and statuesque with pale, ivory skin and dark hair and eyes. I was blonde with tawny skin and pale eyes like my father’s and I always longed to be a dark, exotic looking beauty. Later, when I found out what being a blonde could do, I kept my hair as blonde as L’Oreal would let me keep it, but, in my secret life, I still long to look like Ava Gardner or Maureen O’Hara or my mother.
While thinking about these things I remembered my mother’s mother, my beloved Gram Werner, talking often about how homely she was as a kid. She had two older sisters who were beautiful, she said and five brothers who picked on her terribly and always told her she was ugly. So believing ourselves ugly is a family heritage that has been passed down through three generations, at least, in my family.
It seems strange to be thinking about these things at this stage of my life when I am well into my fifties and perfectly content to be this age but I can’t help but wonder what my life would have been like had I thought differently of myself and if I had been raised by women who thought differently of themselves. On the one hand I suspect I would have had a lot more confidence in romantic situations, on the other hand I wonder if I would have been as academically oriented as I have always been and as ambitious. I don’t know.
There is a lot of talk in the media about the culture of youth that we live in today. Youth and beauty are idolized and women particularly spend a great deal of their time, energy, and money trying to hold on to their youthful beauty. Since I never thought I had any, I never felt the need to cling to it. But I am aware that the desire to be beautiful is inherent in most women and something we don’t seem to outgrow. Partly, I think it is the incessant message of the media in this consumer culture of ours — buy more stuff and you will be okay — and partly I think it is inherent in the human psyche to long for things that we consider beautiful.
What is the point of beauty? It serves no real purpose, it doesn’t make us smarter or kinder or better in any way. In fact there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that beautiful people may be less kind and not as good as their less attractive fellows. Studies on bullying among girls shows that it is the beautiful girls who are the worst bullies. Girls who become aware that beauty gives them power sometimes use that power to persecute and torment plainer girls. Still we long for the beautiful.
I’m not sure I have any answers here or can contribute anything of value to the sum of knowledge but I am hopeful that as we grow as people our beliefs about what is beautiful will change. Mostly, I think it is about attention. We believe that if we are beautiful people will pay attention to us and that, sadly, is a reminder of our own fragility and our need to be seen. That is a gift we can give to each other — our attention. Pay attention, really pay attention. Ultimately being noticed and appreciated, if only for a little while, is what we crave. It is an easy gift to give.
Thanks for reading.
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
One of the things I particularly like about it is the adaptability to size. I realize not everyone would want one quite as voluminous as the shawls I prefer. I love being able to wrap up totally in a shawl. But there are enough places in the shawl that you can make adjustments that a moderately experienced knitter can change the pattern to suit her preferences.
I am also on the last few rows of the beautiful, lacy rainbow shawl I am knitting from Knit Pick’s Shimmer, a rich, lace-weight alpaca and silk blend that has such richness of color it looks like jewels. This will be a nice, light, summer-weight shawl and I intend to put deep fringe on it for added panache.
All of which means that I only have one shawl in the works — the Lady Eleanor — which is about 1/3 finished and is coming along nicely. Believe it or not it does seem that summer may come after all and I am thinking about what I want to knit when it is warm. I have quite a bit of yarn to choose from (what a shock!) There are 6 or 7 skeins of Knit Pick’s beautiful Alpaca Cloud, a big bag of their shine in a beautiful color called Sky, and an equally big bag of their Crayon Pima Cotton in a deep pink that will all make happy summer knitting. Plus I still have two large hanks of Lorna’s Laces silk-wool blend laceweight begging to be used.
So last night I spent a couple hours with a stack of lace knitting books from my collection looking for inspiration. I’ve never made a doily and think it is safe to say I never will but I love the patterns that lace knitters have devised to create them. When I look at books like Marianne Kinzel’s I can’t imagine the hundreds of hours it took to create those lovely things — and yet, at the same time, I think about doing them on a much larger scale to make a shawl.
A few years back I copied the stitch patterns in her “Lilac Time” doily and used them to make a triangle scarf. I made it in Ironstone’s beautiful mohair in a deep violet. It now belongs to my friend Terry. I have been looking at the popular "Frost Flowers and Leaves Shawl" in A Gathering of Lace and wondering if I could adapt the same principles Eugen Beugler used in creating it and wondering if I could do a similar thing using the motifs in “Lilac Time”.
As I was thinking about this I wondered what it is that would compel me to do that? Certainly Beugler’s Frost Flower shawl is sufficiently beautiful and intricate to be made in one of the lovely laceweights I’ve been hoarding. But noooo. I want to make something of my own. And I think that is just how knitters are, we want to create something just a little different than what has been done before. I have to get out my copy of A Gathering of Lace and look through it. I recall there are some interesting interpretations of Kinzel’s Tudor Rose doily in there, too. Maybe that is the inspiration I’m looking for.
Maybe that is why women have created all those doilies — so they can try out new stitch combinations without committing themselves to something as large as a shawl. I’d give it a go if I knew anyone who used doilies anymore. But the planning and the dreaming and the thinking about it is half the fun. I feel another new shawl pattern coming on.
Thanks for reading.
Monday, March 06, 2006
Feb. 28 -
Greetings my dear ones......just letting you know that all is going well, have completed the 3 week adjustment period, the first group of volunteers flew home last nite, all my classes have been taken, and now I will have some free time to begin visiting some tanzanian families, and becoming more of a native!!!!!
Thanks for reading.
Thursday, March 02, 2006
In addition to the usual cookbooks of the time (The Joy of Cooking and Fannie Farmer), my mother had two wonderful cookbooks — the original version of Putting Foods By which was the bible for the stuff that came out of Dad’s garden every year, and Food That Schmecks, which is now out on top of my refrigerator with Julia Child and Sarah Leah Chase, my culinary luminaries. Schmecks is a Pennsylvania Dutch word that means “tastes”, as in “has a LOT of taste”. Germans aren’t big on subtlety when it comes to food.
So anyway, Gram Werner made soltz on a regular basis and it never lasted long. On pleasant Sunday mornings after Mass her brothers, my Uncle Eddie and Uncle George — and occasionally Uncle Chris, would come to her house and we would sit on the front porch eating soltz sliced and served on rye bread from Meisel’s Bakery with hearty dark mustard and thick slices of onion. All washed down with Straub’s beer, of course. Straub’s beer is story unto itself and may make it into a future blog. Sometimes Uncle George brought limburger cheese to go with it but on those occasions he sat on the far end of the porch by himself.
When I got older Gram taught me to make soltz and, years later when I was living in Texas, I had a neighbor who had grown up in a small town outside of Munich. I made it once for him and he said it tasted exactly like the soltz his grandmother used to make. I had a hard time getting rid of him after that.
Traditionally soltz was made from the lower legs of pigs — the part below the hams — but Gram would use any kind of leg bone. When the men butchered deer during hunting season they always saved the legs for her, and threw in any other meaty scraps they had left over. These parts were skinned and cleaned and the excess fatty parts cut away (not an issue with venison). All were placed in a huge kettle and just covered with water and simmered until the meat was falling off the bones. Gram would remove the bones and gristle and dispose of those and then put the meat aside while the remaining liquid cooled so she could skim off the fat. Originally she put the meat through a grinder but my Dad liked it better when the meat wasn’t ground so fine so she would chop it into small pieces. She sometimes added other cooked meat to this — leftover pork loins and roasts. Once she even chopped up the leftovers from a turkey and put them in.
The liquid was measured and an equal amount of cider vinegar was added to it along with finely chopped onions and lots of black pepper. When this was bubbling she added the meat, let it all come to boil and then ladled it into loaf pans lined with wax paper and set it to chill. When it was cold the liquid jelled up and made a spicy, tangy treat.
Once in a little Amish store in Adams County I saw loaves of soltz that had been decorated by making patterns from slivers of carrots and pickles in the bottom of the pan before the meat was ladled in. When it set and was turned out there was a pretty pattern on top — chust for nice.
I don’t know if people today care about these things anymore but it is nice to remember what an event the making of soltz was when I was a girl, and to preserve the memory of it. Preserving — it’s a German thing.
Thanks for reading.
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
But I still cook a lot of the dishes I grew up with, though I haven’t made soltz in years now, and it is fun to talk about. Sauerkraut was a mainstay of our diet when I was a kid. “Keeps you healthy,” my father said. ”Keeps you regular,” my grandmother said. God bless my Mom — she just kept cooking it.
We made our own which was always an event. In the fall when Dad cleaned up the garden for winter he would bring in the cabbages. Sometimes they hung by their roots from a rack in the shop until we had time to make sauerkraut and sometimes he’d buy a few extra heads from local farmers. On sauerkraut-making day as many of us as could be rounded it up would help. I remember one sauerkraut making day my cousing John stopped to visit. He was a businessman in Washington, D.C. by this time and always wore a suit and tie. But when he saw what we were doing, off came the suitcoat and the tie, he rolled up his sleeves and set to work. I think he worked the hardest of any of us that day!
First you remove and clean the big, tough outer leaves. These are used to line the crock in which the sauerkraut ferments. Then you quarter and core the heads so they can be shredded on a big shredder which is a long, narrow board with a sharp blade fitted into it. You place the cabbage on the board and slide it back and forth over the blade into a dishpan. As the pan fills, the shredded cabbage is packed into the leaf-lined crock layered with coarse salt every few inches or so. Usually Mom and I cut up the cabbages, my brothers Jack and Wayne, did the shredding, and Dad and Anne packed the crocks.
The crock itself was very old and may have come from German. It was made of a heavy crockery material and had a stone that fit precisely within its circumference which weighted the kraut as it fermented. When the crock was full, it was moved into a storage space under the steps and the weight put into place. It stayed there for a couple months as the salt and kraut did their magic.
When it was finally fermented to the right amount (I never did know exactly how Mom figured that), she and I would pack it into quart canning jars and process it in a boiling water like you would can anything. Personally, I always liked it best raw and would eat it that way as we worked. Though I don’t make it from scratch anymore, I still love opening a bag of sauerkraut and snitching from the bag before it goes into the pot.
My mother had two primary ways of cooking kraut — Gram Werner’s way and Grandma Valentine’s way. In Gram Werner’s way the kraut was placed in a big “Dutch oven” with a pork loin and simmered until the pork fell off the bone and there was a good amount of juice. She would then make baking powder dumplings that were dropped into the boiling liquid. It was served in soup plates, a type of dish I have an endless fondness for and prefer to use over plates or bowls for everything.
In Grandma Valentine’s way the sauerkraut was spread out in a shallow baking pan and sprinkled with brown sugar. Scrubbed new potatoes were tucked into the kraut along the edges and fat pork chops were laid on top of it, sprinkled with pepper and put into the oven to bake until the pork chops were sizzling and the kraut was crispy and golden around the edges. When I do this I add a slice of apple on top of each chop. It is equally wonderful.
Well I planned on talking about soltz but I’ll have to save that for tomorrow. Who knew there was so much to say about sauerkraut?
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. So that means no candy except on Sundays for the next four weeks. Don’t forget to go get your ashes!
Thanks for reading.