Friday, April 28, 2006

Gregory Gibson at Hovey House Writer’s Group

Ever since I read Gregory Gibson’s wrenching book about the death of his son, Gone Boy, I have been anticipating, with mixed feelings, his talk at our Hovey House Writer’s Group meeting last night. I have his second book, Demon of the Waters, but have not read it as yet. Somehow, as much as I admired his courage and his astonishing self-revelation and emotional rawness in Gone Boy, I wasn’t sure how I would react to his presence. I need not have worried.

Gibson and his wife Anne Marie arrived just as the sun was making the waves all gold and pink in the harbor. The view from Hovey House is so extraordinary that it’s hard to think of anything else when you first arrive. Some of the dory racers were rowing out by Ten Pound Island and all of Jane’s daffodils and tulips are in full bloom. It was going to be a good evening.

When we were gathered in the living room and had made out usual introductions, Gibson said that, though he was happy and pleased that people appreciated his first two books, as a writer he was now on to a third book and he wondered if anyone would mind if he read from that and talked about that instead of the first ones. We thought that seemed like a fine idea and he began by reading us the first chapter of his current work-in-progress. It was delicious.

I am not comfortable with talking about another writer’s WIP — suffice it to say his book is non-fiction and involves the later photographer Diane Arbus — but having this opportunity to hear another writer read from his work and encourage feedback reminded me of how both wonderful and necessary it is for writers to have the support of their fellows. I don’t know if there are writers who are capable of doing good work without the feedback of others but I would find that hard to imagine.

Having participated in a lot of writer’s groups over the years, I am acutely aware of the quality of feedback given. Some critiques are kind but useless. Some are very critical and equally useless when the criticism is non-specific (“I don’t know, I just didn’t feel anything for the characters, they just didn’t work for me” — great. Thanks.) Getting feedback from friends is usually encouraging but not always helpful either. It’s not that friends are always trying to be nice and supportive, it’s just that they know you. If they are real friends they accept you as you are, warts and all, and so writing flaws that a stranger might pick up on, a friend will not notice simply because — well — that’s just who you are to them, that’s how you talk so they don’t notice it.

Gibson is very good at exploring the insides of people’s heads, most especially his own. Because he can examine his own interior, he has the ability to get inside another person, have a look around and see what’s going on. That is a good way to write, from the inside out. I admit, after hearing his first chapter of this new book, I am very eager for him to write and publish the rest. Diane Arbus is an interesting subject anyway because she was part of that group of women artists, like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who lived brave lives in a time of baffling social change and, ultimately, could no longer bear being in the world.

The Hovey House Writer’s group is always an inspiration for me. A new participant last night is working on her MFA in creative writing and is fortunate to having Irish writer Nuala O'Faolain as her mentor. I’ve been a fan of O'Faolain ever since reading her autobiographical Are You Somebody? It was wonderful to hear this writer talk about their relationship.

So, as always, we are reminded that writers write. We write because that’s what we do. Gibson began writing out of pain and discovered a gift and a love and we benefitted from his willingness to share with us last night. And I can’t wait for him to finish this book....

Thanks for reading....

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Not Buying It

I read a review in a magazine recently about a new book that has come out titled Not Buying It by Judith Levine . I haven’t read the book and may not but I liked the premise. The author and her husband, concerned about their obsessions with consumerism, made the decision to not shop for a year. They would buy groceries, of course, and drug store items and necessities for the house or themselves (I assume that means things like hosiery and underwear as needed) but they would do no shopping beyond that.

The book, according to the review, is like a diary of the experience not unlike the diary a dieter or recovering alcoholic might keep. One entry mentioned was the author’s frustration over seeing a pair of lime green high heels she just HAD to have but could not buy. Maybe I’ll look for the book at the library.

Interestingly enough, I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of the economy of this country these days. Here in Gloucester gasoline is now over three dollars a gallon and getting higher. This effects not only the people who commute “down the line” every day — I used to commute 80 miles a day — but also the fishermen who are as beleaguered as those in any occupation can be. Consequently a lot of people are cutting back and, sadly, a lot haven’t got anymore cutting back available to them. Yesterday I was talking to a neighbor who is working three jobs to keep food on the table while her husband is fishing alone, further out than she is comfortable with. They have a teenager at home and one in college. They have no extras in their life these days.

There is something very out of balance going on. I know that is stating the obvious but it bears repeating often I think. We have lost perspective on how people were meant too live. We live packed together and yet how many of us know each other? We fill our lives with stuff and stuff and more stuff and turn a blind eye to the family next door who can barely feed themselves.

I have this sense that people were meant to live in community and to be a part of one another’s lives. There is a divisiveness that comes of rampant consumerism that has far-reaching effects for both families and neighborhoods. I’ve written about the endless cycle of acquisition before — more stuff—>more money—>longer work hours—>less time with family and friends—>more alienation—>more things to fill the void—>more stuff. And on and on.

One of the things I thought of when I was thinking about that writer’s longing for the lime green high heels was the anticipation of pleasure we project on to such things. “If only I had those lime green high heels I would feel beautiful and attractive and life would be good.” It occurred to me that it is that anticipation of pleasure that fuels so much of our drive to acquire. I’ve been there myself — a lot. If only I had fillintheblank all would be well. Recently this took the form of a black, sueded silk shirt with black abalone buttons. I had seen one in a movie and had a powerful big “want” on for it. I decided to make one and it turned out beautifully. I’ve worn it three times.

Tuesday night I wore the shirt out to dinner with a group of friends. I love these people and we had, as we always do, a wonderful time. We laughed and shared food and wine and conversation for three hours. It was a delightful evening and, as always seems to happen with us, nobody wanted to leave. And nobody noticed my shirt. You know what? That was fine.

I guess what I’m getting at is we need less stuff and more pleasure. For the price of those lime green high heels that writer could invite several friends over for pizza and wine and laughter and sharing. I don’t think we need more stuff — I think we need one another.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

coffeecoffeecoffee

I’m a coffee lover — have been most of my life and, as I am getting older, I hate to admit that I can’t drink it like I used to. There was a time when I drank coffee all day and into the evening and never worried about it effecting sleep. Not any more. I used to say that coffee gave me the energy to sleep but these days my coffee consumption has to end by late afternoon or sleep is difficult.

What got me thinking about this is a pound of delicious Italian coffee given to me by a client who travels to Italy on a regular basis as part of his business. He represents a line of premium Italian coffees to coffee shops and cafés in this part of the country and, what I have tasted of it so far, is heavenly.

Which brought me to the issue of how one makes coffee. Back when I was a kid, my mother, who thought coffee was some nice warm stuff to dunk cookies in, had this huge old percolator that cooked the living daylights out of coffee. My Dad drank coffee by the pot. I never liked the stuff that came out of that percolater though I do remember with pleasure how it made the house smell.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I began to drink coffee regularly. Over the years I’ve owned a lot of different kinds of coffeemakers and tried every coffee under the sun and I’ve discovered a basic truth — for me anyway — about coffee. The more simply you make it, the better it tastes. When my friend gave me the bag of coffee beans, I got out my grinder and ground a batch and brewed up a pot in my fancy-schmancy designer drip coffeemaker. It was good coffee but I had a sense that the coffee-making method was not doing justice to the quality of the beans. I rummaged around in the cupboard and found two different stovetop espresso pots. There’s nothing that brings out the full flavor of a good coffee bean like steam.

The first one I tried is a beautiful, very heavy espresso pot made by National Silver many years ago. As I recall, it makes great coffee and there is even a way to use the lever on top of it to release the built up steam and froth milk to serve with it. Problem is I can never remember whether the lever thingie goes up or down while the coffee is steaming so I never use it. The other one is an old Mako aluminum espresso pot — the kind you see in foreign movies and that is ubiquitous in Italian summer rentals to confuse American tourists. Mine is at least forty years old — it belonged to my Uncle Custy who gave it to my Dad who gave it to me. Uncle Custy was Italian and the best wild mushroom hunter in Pennsylvania but that’s another story.

There is an Italian tradition that pots like that should never be fully washed, just well rinsed and the rubber ring replaced as needed. But as the pot is used over and over, it ”seasons” and each successive cup of coffee brings with it the legacy of all the coffee that has gone before. So I made a pot of it with my precious coffee beans from Italy and, you know what? It is heavenly.

I just went and made another pot while writing this. It is soft and silky and mellow with a robust underside. Why did I ever spend money on all those damn coffeemakers when I had this little jewel in the cupboard?

So I’m sitting here with the best coffee I’ve had in ages and memories of my Uncle Custy who died many years ago. So far the day is off to a good start. I have a lot of work ahead of me and a car issue to deal with but I also have that wonderful old coffeepot and a bag of beans carried across the Atlantic Ocean for me. And the sun is shining.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Mermaid Shawl KAL #4: Third 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.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

New Adventures in Knitting

First of all, the Mermaid Shawl third lace pattern is finally making sense to me. I've started the "tails" that finish the shawl and am going to try to figure out how to explain this today so I will be posting the instructions in the next couple of days. As you can see, it looks pretty good.

In the mean time I want to show a few pictures of some other stuff I have been experimenting with. I love silk. I love silk fabric and silk yarn though it isn't the easiest stuff in the world to work with. After finishing the two winter hats I made in KnitPicks' alpaca/silk blend and cashmere'silk blend I wanted to try working with 100% silk. Pure silk is far less pliable than silk which is blended with wool, alpaca, or chashmere but it is beautiful.

I got a few skeins of the popular Himalayan Silk and am just testing it right now on size 15 wooden needles. You can see the results at left. I think I'll go down a couple sizes when I start the real project though the larger needles give a lovely fluidity and drape. In case anyone doesn't know about Himalayan silk it is created in Tibet and Nepal originally by the women who worked in factories where silk saris are manufactured. They would carry the silk scraps home with them at the end of the day and spin it into a sturdy yarn that they used to knit hats, gloves and jackets with. It is a beautiful yarn but is not the easist thing I have ever worked with. It is not pliable, is very uneven and tends to "grab" making it a pain to wind from skeins into balls. But it is beautiful. The colors are like jewels and the weight and sheen is glorious. I am contemplating a short, boxy jacket but we shall see how I fare with the first skein.

My friend Jane gave me a sweater she purchased many years ago but rarely wore because it was too long for her. Still she said she kept it because it was pure silk and so beautiful. It was knitted in a very loose stitch and I had no trouble pulling it apart and winding the yarn into balls. However, it is not technically yarn --- it is the unspun roving from which yarn is made. You can see it in the photo at right.
This stuff is luscious! It is unbelievably soft and shimmery. It is very uneven varying from quite thin to parts that are as thick as my little finger but the fibers are very strong as silk usually is. I am knitting it on size 15 needles and making a long stole in an Old Shale pattern. You really don't need a pattern but I like the way this is turning out. I had tried knitting it on the bias and it was too heavy for that, it pulled much too long and thin when knit that way. So this is turning out to be a nice, very soft and very warm project with a lovely drape.

Finally, I am making a summer sweater out of KnitPick's scrumptious Pima Cotton called Crayon in their new Periwinkle color. I absolutely love this stuff. it is much softer than anything else I have ever worked with --- cashmere or silk. It is, however, slippy. I am working on wooden needles which helps but have to make sure I put point protectors on the needles whenever I am transporting them. The yarn just slips off with reckless abandon. However, I love the feel of this so much I ordered enough for a second sweater in their Azure color. If you are a patient knitter who adores the feel of lovely yarn slipping through your fingers, this is the stuff to buy. And the best part is it is cheap ($1.99 skein) and can be thrown in the washer and dryer. It would be perfect for baby clothes.

So that is my adventures in knitting for now. I will post the directions for the Mermaid Shawl within the next couple of days. Also my good friend Leslie Wind has made some incredible new shawl pins. She tells me she has received a lot of orders from knitters how read this blog. We are making her a new web site which will feature the pins so look for that to be up soon. In the mean time you can go to www.LeslieWind.com or email her at wind@cove.net.

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend who had just come back from Italy at Valentino's here in Gloucester. He had never been there and could not believe how great the food was --- he said he felt like he was back in Italy. As we were leaving a woman came in wearing a beautiful, hand-knitted shawl in the Ostrich Plume pattern. My friend said he saw women wearing many beautiful shawls in Italy and was delighted to see them being worn here, too. So keep knitting those shawls, ladies. They beat the heck out of nylon windbreakers!

Thanks for reading --- and knitting.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Cover

There’s the old saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover but the plain truth of the matter is that a good many people will admit to buying a book simply because they were attracted by its cover. I am among them. I have half a dozen (probably more that I won’t admit to) books in my bookcases which were perfectly dreadful but I keep them because I love the cover. I don’t know how many very good books failed because of bad cover design but these are all things I think about when I have to design a cover.

When I designed the cover for Lila Swift Monell’s poetry book, Split-Image Focus, I never would have thought of the cover we wound up with. The four photo collage of a guinea fowl was not what I would have imagined but people who knew Lila better than I do said they would be perfect. Lila took the photos of her own beloved guniea fowl, Martha Graham, and they proved to be right. Everyone loved the cover.

I have to tell you, I’ve had a terrible time with Mark’s book. How to design it so that it is appealing and interesting without giving the wrong impression of the book has baffled me. My original design was mostly black but Mark thought it was too dark. He likes blue. His original idea was considerably more graphic than what we would up with but, once he explained his full vision to me, I explained to him what the cost of a photo shoot like that would be. So it was back to the drawing board.

Last week I thought we had it. We were still bickering over the seagulls in the cover photo. I wanted a lot of them, he wanted three — grudgingly. He doesn’t like seagulls. So, in the midst of the back and forth, I showed the latest cover version to Betty Lou and another artist friend, Ruth Brown, and that proved to be a smart move. After studying watercolor with B.L. for as long as I did, I should know that her first consideration is always compositional aesthetics. "Your composition is off," she said, pushing aside her dinner plate and grabbing a pen. She reminded me about Golden Sections and Dynamic Symmetry as she marked up the cover. I wish I had her eye!

She and Ruth consulted on a few details and I brought their suggestions home and went back to the digital drawing board. That was what we needed.

So today Mark signs off on the book and it is off to print, I hope. This cover is really beautiful in my opinion combining both of our ideas and vastly improved by B.L. and Ruth’s suggestions. Then it is off to press. Mark has chosen to do the independent press thing — I knew he would. He’s a guy who fished alone for 20 years on the North Atlantic, what a shock that he’d chose to publish as an independent. He has named his press Silver Perch Press, which I love, and the book will soon be available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and at his Parlez-Moi Press site. We are hoping for a May 15th Publishing date.

I’ve worked on this book so long I feel like I’ve lost all objectivity. There have been chapters we disagree on but I always have to remind myself that this is his book. He has to go with his gut feelings about it. One thing I know is that he writes beautifully. And he has 20 years of experience in a strange and fascinating world to write about. So keep an eye out for the book with the blue cover — coming in May to a bookstore near you.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Preserving the Past

An interesting coincidence occurred yesterday. I had an early appointment at the North Shore Arts Association to look at and discuss the renovations to the basement of that grand old building. As I turned my car down Pirates Lane, across the harbor at Gloucester Marine Railways, I saw a huge, brilliantly red ship. The Nantucket Lightship is moored there waiting to be hauled onto the ways to have her keel cleaned and repaired.

I first saw the Nantucket Lightship in a tall ships parade in Boston Harbor in the late eighties. There were so many amazing ships in that parade that it was impossible to appreciate them all but the Nantucket Lightship was so unique it stayed in my mind. There are less than 14 of them left. At one time they were the ideal solution to saving ships by positioning a ship bearing warning lights on shoals and sandbars off the coasts. Between 1800 and 1950 there were some fifty of them in service off the coast, today all have been decommissioned and few remain intact.

The walk-through in the art association’s building was impressive. The work that Richard Bernstein and the House Committee has done over the past six years is just remarkable. No one is really sure when that building was constructed — sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. Originally it was a livery where cargo being unloaded from ships coming into Gloucester harbor was stored until it could be loaded onto wagons and carried off to its next destination.

When I joined the Board of Trustees of the art association, the building was in bad shape — it looked like what it was, a century old barn that had seen a lot of use. Though the art association has owned the building for close to eighty years, there was rarely money enough to do more than the most basic repairs and renovations. However, thanks to the generosity of a couple kind donors, and the vision and hard work of guys like Richard, the building is looking amazing today. All the floors have been sanded and refinished, the interior walls have been carpeted, track lighting illuminates the paintings on the walls, bathrooms and a kitchen have been built. It is gorgeous.

Most recently they have begun work on the basement which was previously a mess and used for little more than storage for accumulated junk. All that has changed over this past winter. The junk has been cleared out, the lolly columns reinforced, and the front room, which features beautiful windows overlooking the harbor, is being refinished to serve as space for workshops, classes, and small exhibits. It is wonderful!

When I got home last night I was doing a little bit of research on the Nantucket Lightship and discovered that a few years ago it was purchased by a Falmouth couple from the State of Massachusetts on eBay for $126,000. They have spent three years pouring millions of dollars into it to convert the interior to luxurious standards including mahogany and cherry finishing, marble counters and more. They are now offering it for sale for a tidy $7.6 million dollars.

It makes me very happy that people chose to preserve and restore old treasures like these. Out old livery stable is gradually transforming into a stunning art gallery and events hall. Every year more and more art workshops fill our schedule and plays, lectures, music, and other performances are increasing year by year.

I hope the Nantucket Lightship fares well, too. It will be “on the ways” for a few more days. I am told that there is a challenge in hauling her out because of the unique keel bilge configuration but it will be done. Richard Bernstein’s commitment to our old livery is a pure labor of love. I suspect the same is true for the people who restored the Lightship. That’s not a bad way to use your time.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Day My Mother Died

Patriot’s Day is tough for me. It is the day my mother died and, though the actual anniversary is April 15th — that was the date Patriot’s Day fell on that year — it is Patriot’s Day and not the 15th that seems to come loaded with the memories.

No one expected it. She hadn’t been feeling well but, as far as I knew, nobody suspected it was anything more than the flu. She was in Pennsylvania, of course, and I was here in Gloucester. The phone rang around 10 in the evening and it was my brother Wayne. He said something had happened and she was on her way to the hospital. He said, “It doesn’t look good.” Now I know he was hoping for a miracle because she was already dead when the ambulance arrived. I didn’t know that then.

At five in the morning Lisa called and said, “She’s gone.” Those words ripped through me like a knife. Nothing had prepared me for it. I drove the 600 miles to my parent’s house alone. It was the day after the marathon and there weren’t many travel options. It was the hardest drive I’ve ever made. The days that followed were the usual. There’s nothing much you can say about them. It is the months and years that follow a significant death that are the challenge.

My mother’s name was Mary Ann Grace. She was a tall woman, taller than I am and large with dark hair and big, dark brown eyes. She grew up the second sister of four sisters raised by a hardworking mother. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was 13. I always heard, growing up, that she was considered a beauty around town. She was 24 when she gave birth to me.

My mother and I didn’t always get along — not an unusual thing for a mother and first daughter. Psychologically we could not have been more different. My mother was outgoing and friendly. She loved people and much preferred to be in jobs where she met the public and in activities where she interacted with a lot of people. She was intelligent but not particularly interested in the Arts. I’m the opposite — solitary by nature, reclusive, more interested in art and literature than entertainment.

She bore and raised eight children. Sometimes when I think about that it sort of amazes me because I think if you met her, not knowing about her life, you would be surprised that she had that many kids. But she was very proud of us. She loved to tell people about her kids. When I was living in Salem she came to visit and, a few days into her visit, I told her I was going to get her a t-shirt that read, “Hi, I’m Mary Ann and I’m here from Pennsylvania visiting my daughter. I have eight children and they all finished college.” It would save her a lot of time but, I realize, that would be the last thing she wanted.

The best part of our relationship came after I moved away from Pennsylvania and she would come to visit me. Every time she visited we seemed to have an adventure and I’m glad of that — I don’t think she had a lot of adventures. My favorite was the time I took her to a Mexican marketplace on the Texas border. She absolutely loved it. All the colors, sights and sounds thrilled her. But we had other adventures in New Orleans, the Smokey Mountains, driving through Nova Scotia, and here in Gloucester. She loved Gloucester too.

I miss her. She had a big personality that was hard to miss and sometimes I felt totally overwhelmed by her but she was sort of a force of nature. I’ve never felt I could live up to her grandness. So today I will be thinking about her — and missing her. I think she would like the fact that what marks her passing, for me anyway, is the Boston Marathon. She got a chuckle out of odd coincidences like that.

Love you, Mom.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Happy Easter!!!

Nothing makes me happier than the first flowers of Spring. May everyone have a beautiful and happy day. It is the season of rebirth, renewal and starting over. Enjoy!

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Merchant of Venice at Passover

My friend Clare invited me to her house to watch the DVD of the 2004 production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons. Watching this with her was interesting for two reasons. Clare is something of a Shakespearian scholar. She wrote a short play, Queer Bent for the Tudor Gent, a take-off on a popular TV show done all in Shakespearian quotations (and annotated!)which was recently produced at a short-theater festival in Sydney, Australia. And, like me, Clare was raised Catholic but she now works in the office of the local synagogue. And it is Passover.

The Merchant of Venice was written in a time when the persecution of Jews was a normal part of everyday life for most people. In Venice, where the movie is set, Jews were relegated to life in the ghetto which was locked at night and guarded by Christians. They also had to wear red hats in public, were forbidden to own property, and made their living trading in the lending of money which Christians, at the time, were prohibited from doing.

The movie is lavish and brilliant. Jeremy Irons and Joseph Feinnes are trained Shakespearian actors and did magnificently but Al Pacino can act the pants off of anyone. He was stunning. He’s one of that breed of actors who can speak volumes with their eyes before he even opens his mouth. As Shylock, the abused and bitter money-lender, he is simply astonishing.

Even though this is Shakespeare, written in an age and a manner that seems utterly arcane to modern viewers, in a thoroughly compelling interpretation, one cannot help but be struck dumb by the inhumanity of the story’s core. On one level, Shakespeare did an astonishingly brave thing in this play. Shylock’s soliloquy, “Hath not a Jew eyes? If you cut us do we not bleed?”, must have been utterly shocking to Elizabethan audiences. As I listened to it I couldn’t help but be impressed with Old Will for writing it in such an intolerant time. I wondered how audiences back then responded to it.

On another level it is a story about intolerance, bigotry, and revenge. Shylock has endured humiliations no one should have to, the final straw comes when his friend Antonio, a Christian, spits on him in public. Shylock takes the opportunity to avenge this insult by demanding a literal pound of flesh “to be cut by me” from Antonio’s breast as security for a loan. When Antonio is forced to default on the loan, Shylock demands his payment and the two — along with everyone in Venice — goes to court.

There is a second piece of anti-bigotry bravery in this play when all the men fail to find a solution to this horrific situation and Antonio is rescued by Portia who, disguised as a man, delivers the brilliant “the quality of mercy is not strained” speech. When the guys get done with all their macho posturing, the women save the day.

As we were watching it I was thinking about it being Passover. And that today is Good Friday, the day on which Christians believe Jesus died for our sins. I cannot help but wonder what in the hell is wrong with us. It seems we always have to have a “them” to be persecuted by “us”. You cannot take works out of art and judge them by contemporary standards without considering the sociology of the times. I’ve had that discussion many times. The Merchant of Venice is no more anti-Semitic than Gone with the Wind is anti-black or For Whom the Bell Tolls is anti-female (which a woman friend recently described it as). But all of them point out what a lousy job we humans have done of taking care of each other. You can’t help but wonder what did the angel pass over the Jews for? Why did Jesus bother to die for us? Why do we always have to beat up on each other?

So today is Good Friday for me, I don’t know what you are observing today. But it is a day to think about what good it does to perpetuate hatred. What does such behavior serve? We are human and fallible, yes, but every day is a fresh day in which we can make the choice to choose anew. We can choose compassion or hatred — it is up to us.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Naming Names

One of the most important aspects of writing is the names a writer gives to characters. There are character names that stand out throughout literature — Atticus Finch, Scarlet O’Hara, Holden Caulfield, Hester Pryne — and come to embody connotations all their own. Some great novels feature unnamed narrators. Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca and Melville’s Moby Dick come to mind. That is a rather daring move that I have occasionally managed for a short story but can’t quite imagine undertaking for an entire book.

I’ve been thinking about this because of my blog a couple days ago about my short story “Killing Julie Morris”. The name of the title character just came to me as I was writing the first draft and, since it fit, I never messed with it. Actually, in retrospect, I realize I used both of those names before — Julie is the name of the protagonist’s wife in my current w-i-p, Triad and Morris is the name of a character who doesn’t actually appear until the end of the book but, since names tend to float around in the writer’s sub-conscious, it’s not surprising that they tumbled out together.

Much to my amazement, though not surprise, someone I don’t know but who seems to be fairly obsessed with this blog, has decided that I chose the name Julie out of “wrath” at her. I’m starting to find the self-absorption of a couple of my regular readers to be a fairly fascinating phenomenon. However, choosing the name for my short story had much more to do with Triad than anything else.

Character names are important. Sometimes the name you give a character shapes their personality and their behavior in ways you hadn’t anticipated. When I picked the name Morris for the character in Triad I chose it because of that old cat food commercial because the character reminded me of that pompous, pedantic old cat. But, now in re-write, I have been changing his name to something less stuff. I need to loosen him up a bit. I really like almost all of the names in my work. Sometimes the name just comes immediately with the character — other times I struggle for a long time. The character Rosie in The Old Mermaid’s Tale was originally named Darlene but in my final round of edits I wanted a name that was cuter and happier and somehow Darlene turned into Rosie. In Triad I had a scene where Maggie’s Aunt Fanny is talking about her deceased husband and she called him Asa. I was blithely unaware of that until my friend Trudi pointed it out to me. “Don’t you have a short story by that name?” Oh crap, yeah. So Asa became Ephram.

Recently Mark decided to change the names of a couple of characters in his book which, hopefully, will be to press in 2 weeks. We were having an awful time coming up with a appropriate names that wouldn’t alter the personalities of the characters and we finally had to dig out my Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook to help us out. Ethnic names in particular are problematic — you want them to be believable but not too quaint. Of all the male characters I have ever created, my favorites are Baptiste, the Breton mariner in Old Mermaid, Silvio, the Italian musician in “My Last Romance”, and Father Pete, the Jesuit priest in Triad. The names for all of them just grew with the character. My female names are less exotic — Clair in Mermaid and Maggie in Triad pretty much named themselves.

I’ve found an interesting new source for colorful names recently thanks to my Spam mail folder. Some of the Spam that has come in have amazing names on them — Garibaldi Druid, Dubious Tredmill, Kerstin Wildrick and Fester Shelhammer. How can you beat those? So I have started a file of really great Spammer names. I don’t know if I’ll ever actually use them and, if I do, you can bet they’ll show up to post a comment demanding I pay attention to them and insisting that I am only using that name to spite them.

Maybe it's a Spammer thing....

Priorities

Last night was our weekly Ladies Night at a local restaurant and, as always, the conversation was wonderful. It amazes me that, as often as we meet, we can always find something to discuss that everyone is passionate about — I love that. Usually our conversations concern plans for various local initiatives but sometimes it strays into the personal and that is wonderful too. There is a great joy in having a circle of trusted and intelligent friends to spend time with. It provides on-going inspiration, support, new perspectives, and faith that, whatever vicissitudes our day-to-day world may contain, we have one another to talk things over with and that is wonderful.

Last night we got talking about a radio interview a couple of us had heard on NPR over the weekend with a researcher who has been doing a study on internet pornography and its role in the lives of the people who spend hours and hours perusing those sites. The researcher stated that some men spend four or more hours a day on these sites. My first thought was, “Good lord, that’s four hours I could be knitting!”

One of the members of our group worked as a systems analyst for many years for a software company. She told about a situation where one of their analysts had racked up countless hours on a various internet porn sites and, when it was called to the attention of his superior, he pointed out that the internet porn sites were fascinating to him because they had the most efficient programming capabilities for gathering user information, tracking movement, and collecting data on the time spent on these sites. The analyst was using the data tracking and gathering capabilities of the porn sites as a model for developing new programs. Good excuse or good thinking? I’ll bet on the latter. Most dedicated programmers are far more interested in the latest cyber-gizmos than they are in titillation.

Though I have to confess a fascination with the fascination with pornography. When I was listening to the radio researcher speak, I realized that my own awareness of pornography and its availability is pretty lame. As a woman that doesn’t make me unusual. According to the research women comprise a very, very small percentage of people who indulge in internet porn and then, usually, it is done with a partner and not by themselves. Porn is pretty much a boy’s club and the internet makes it readily available day and night.

A few years back I got involved in a project to publish a book of erotica. The project was started by three women following on the popularity at the time of other women’s erotica collections. But somewhere along the way, we all lost interest and it never went anywhere. I think the difference between pornography and erotica is an interesting one because pornography tends to be more visual while erotica tends to be the written word. This fits neatly into the old stereotype (and stereotypes exist for a reason) that men are attracted by the visual and women are attracted by the auditory.

There have been a lot of stories in the news lately about prominent people — including politicians — being caught in internet porn stings. It is, to me, a bizarre situation. How do people have time for these things? You have to be pretty stupid not to realize the information-gathering potential of the internet. But more than that, there is so much to be done in the world and in life. Who has time for stuff like that?

So, anyway, the topic generated a great discussion and some fresh insights into the weird workings of the human mind. And, as always, I was gratified to know that I hang out with women who would rather knit, shop, write, sew, etc. etc. than look at pornography. We might be getting older but at least we have our priorities in line.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Another Short Story Thrust Upon the World

Well, I finished it and now it is off to Level Best Books to see how we fare with their next anthology. I named my story "Killing Julie Morris" — sort of an in-your-face title but then it’s that kind of story it is. It is simply a story about a woman who entertains herself thinking up ways to kill Julie Morris, a spoiled, affluent society wife who spends her afternoons in sleazy hotels cheating on her husband. It’s a charming little story. Well, okay, it’s another strange one. Where did I get this peculiar fascination with murder?

It’s a funny thing because other than my early love for Nancy Drew, I was never really overly interested in mystery books. Once I started writing short fiction I tended to write the sort of stories that explored the quirky and individualistic yearnings of the human heart. I’ve always been fascinated by who people chose to love and why. That’s always amazed me. Years ago I worked with a young woman who was, to all appearances, a perfect doll. She was pretty, intelligent, well-dressed, very professional and nice. I’d known her for several months before I met her husband — what a surprise that was. He was tall and skinny and, well, homely. A genuine nerd and this was before nerds were cool.

And that was it — he was cool. He was amazingly intelligent in a strange, geeky kind of way but the kind of braininess that forgets to tie his shoes, get a haircut, shave and wear clothes that sort of match. She adored him and I think he returned the sentiment — as near as you could tell. But they were happy and I wound up getting a pretty good short story out of getting to know them.

Skye Alexander was the one who got me thinking about murder. Skye is a friend and was the person who approached me about designing a web site for Level Best. While we were working on the site she gave me a copy of their first anthology, Undertow, and suggested I should submit a short story for the second one. I told her I didn’t write crime stories but I decided to give it a try. The result was “Asa”, the story they published in their second anthology Riptide. Since then I’ve read a lot of mystery/crime novels and I’m kind of hooked.

Right now my favorite is a Scottish writer named Val McDermid. Damn, she’s good! I am reading her books all out of order but that doesn’t seem to impact the experience. Once you get past the confusion of where the regular characters are in their lives at this point, the intrigue of the story sweeps me along and it doesn’t matter where Tony Hill and Carol Jordan are at this point in their relationship. (Poor Tony, he’s such a mess.)

So, anyway, my latest short story is in the mail to Level Best and now I have to get back to work on my collection of short stories that I call My Last Romance and Other Passions. Writing is surprisingly labor-intensive — especially if you have to earn a living in between times. The primary thing is, I love stories. I love listening to stories and reading them and telling them and writing them and I always have. I grew up at a time and in a place where people told stories a lot to entertain and amuse each other. I remember attending my Grandmother Werner’s 70th birthday party. There were probably fifty people crowding her little house and in every room people who had been her friends all their lives — who grew up before television and videos and DVDs — sat around drinking beer and telling stories. Hunting stories, coming-to-America stories, romantic stories, sad stories, how-I-met-my-spouse stories. It was wonderful. I was 23 at the time and that party has stayed with me all these years. What I learned that night was that we are each of us a book. A book worth reading.

So another story from my on-going book is out in the world. I have to let go of it now. It will either succeed or fail. I can’t be attached to that. There are a lot more stories that need to be written.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Ray's 29th Annual Canoe Trip

My friend Ray and his buddies have been taking these canoe trips every Spring for 29 years now. Ray sent me this report of their adventure and I enjoyed it so much I asked if I could post it here. Since Ray is an occassional contributor to this blog, he agreed. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Ray lives in my hometown, St. Marys, Pennsylvania. His web site is Beimel Photographics.

Mike Werner stopped for me about 6:20PM. I was all ready, having everything packed. On the drive to the farmhouse outside of Ramey, a small town in southern Clearfield County, he told me about being at the Giant Arena in Hershey for the State Championship Class A Boy's Basketball Game, won by our high school alma mater, Elk County Catholic High School. The story was good and we got to the farmhouse in no time. We were the last ones to arrive. Since it was a very warm night for March 31, all the guys were standing out on the porch, some drinking beer, some drinking wine, all of them picking on us for being last. But the conversation, as always, was good. (Left: the group in front of the farmhouse. Steve, Mike, Brad, Dave, Ray, Chris, and Joe. For once, I am more colorful than Chris. This won't happen again. )

Things were a little different on the first night for this trip. Traditionally we drink much beer. This year, some of us drank some beer, more drank wine. Not counting the river beer, we hardly drank a case over the weekend. But we killed many bottles of wine. I don't know what this means except that the old Reuscher formula of B=90n where B is beer in ounces and n is the count of guys present. That was established in 1987 and slowly changed to B=78n and then ultimately became B=28n. Gathering around the kitchen where the wine bottles and snacks were, I proposed a toast to our old Scoutmaster, Gary Kraus. Without him I would not have met Joe and Tony and Mike and Dave and where would the trip be without them?
>Joe's father in law had given him a big catch of panfish so Dave battered them up and Joe fried them. In addition, Joe had a delicious macaroni shrimp salad and a tasty pulled pork barbecue.

After more conversation, lots of fish, and more wine, I showed slides from some of our trips in the past as well as some pictures from the days of the old Scout troop when Mike, Joe, and Dave were young. This was well received. So then it was more drinking wine on the porch. Some of the guys watched Master and Commander on TV. I know I fell asleep before the movie was over.

Saturday morning we got up later than usual and took our time getting started. Mike had brought bagels and sausage for breakfast to we all pitched into that as well as some of the cold fish from last night. We took a walk around the farm and then it was time to hit the river. This more leisurely approach was better than our more hurried times when we were camping and had to get to the campsite with enough daylight left to set up camp. We decided to do about 12 miles of river as opposed to the full 14.3 miles. This turned out to be a good plan. Joe, Dave, and I were left with the canoes while Brad, Chris, and Mike did the car switch. That evolution used to take 46 minutes, this time just 37. That gave us just enough time to use the duct tape to install beverage holders in all the canoes. Try as you might, you just can't find a canoe with a factory installed beer holder.

As soon as we got on the river we knew we were in for a long day. The water was low, as low as any of us can remember it. We hadn't gone 20 yards when we hit bottom for the first time. But Brad and I never had to get out of the canoe, managing to hump, bump, pole, and paddle our way through all the shallows. Some of the passages were only slightly wider than the canoe itself. When we got to the concrete covered pipe, we stopped and scouted, taking a good hard look at it before deciding what to do.
Mike and Dave and Brad and I led our boats past the obstacle but Chris and Joe decided to try to run it. The chute was narrow and had about three inches for a margin of error between the snag at the top and the big rock at the bottom. They got through without spilling but Joe confessed they did touch the rock in question. Had Brad and I tried that we would have been swimming for sure. Thus Chris further cemented his reputation for being the best canoeist among us. However, Brad and I seemed to be doing well at not getting stuck, for whatever that is worth. We ha to do a lot of that paddling stuff, right then left and back to right again in just three canoe lengths. It was that kind of river all the way.

After the pipe it was just a matter of looking closely for rocks and doing a lot of paddling and maneuvering to avoid hitting them. When the river is between 3½ and 5 feet, it is a matter of just getting out in the middle and running with it. At 2.2 feet, it requires close attention from all hands to avoid hitting something. A moment's inattention and you were heading for a wash over that might just flip you. We were good though and no one tipped. We ate lunch under a railroad bridge and had 4 trains go over us while we ate. It was a very busy day on the Norfolk Southern (former Pennsylvania Railroad) New York to Chicago mainline. Of course, we couldn't help but notice that most of the containers on the van trains we saw were lettered for Maersk, Cosco, Hyundai, and other foreign firms.

As we passed through the little village of Spruce Creek we noticed that the no trespassing signs that once hung over the river were gone. There were a lot of fly fishermen out that day. And many more Canada geese than we remembered seeing before. And kingfishers. I love to see kingfishers flitting about. We stopped at our old campsite that we used for 18 years from 1987 to 2004. Someone had been there and left the place a big mess, abandoning gear and trash, pretty much ruining the site. Chris said "It feels like we've been violated." Given the flood washing away everything but the fireplace rocks and the trash, we pretty much decided that we won't camp there anymore. We always left the place looking like we hadn't been there and it was disgusting to see what others had done to it.

From there it was an easy paddle out to the trucks. With the water that low, even in the "lake" above Barree, there were rocks close enough to the surface to get you. Brad looked up to talk to Chris a moment and we hit one and got slammed 45° off course in an instant. We didn't go over but it was a hell of a surprise to hit that. With having nothing but a lunch cooler, beer buckets, and emergency gear to unpack, it didn't take long to get the canoes back on the trucks and thus back to the farmhouse.

We changed out of our flamboyant or funny looking river clothes and picked up the wine tasting where it left off. The Cinch tournament started up and the snacks were hit heavily again. Brad and I won a game which ended with me getting a shooter, a very rare occurrence. I had to get into the kitchen to start dinner. I made a couple of stuffed roast chickens, brown rice, and glazed carrots. This went over well too.

After dinner the other guys did the cleaning up which I appreciate as I am a sloppy cook. But good though. Then it was fireworks time. Brad and Chris had some good stuff, including double shot mortars.


By this time, it was getting late but there was still time to watch the Blue Collar Comedy Tour concert movie. Perhaps it was the company, perhaps the wine, but whatever there was much laughter to the point where Brad had to quote Tuck O'Brien's old line of "my brigs are rope." In English that is "my ribs are broke" from too much laughter. And then to bed. I got into my sleeping bag and rolled over and didn't move again until I heard guys in the kitchen making coffee. Brad cooked up his usual excellent omelets, this time using eggs provided by Steve Gotwols' chickens. It was a warm sunny morning and after breakfast we sat out in the sun and talked and just enjoyed. Then cleanup, the group photo, and home. We have two group shots this time as Steve had some back trouble and thus didn't canoe.

This is the group at the end of the canoeing. Rolling Rock in 7 ounce bottles, the official river beer of the Travelling Circus.
So that's the story on this year's canoe trip. Thanks to Joe for the use of the farm, to everybody for wine, beer, and food and an especially fun time hanging out with a great bunch of guys.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Finding Meaning in Loss

It is said that the hardest thing is for a parent to lose a child. Not being a parent, this is not a thing I have much familiarity with though, in my first novel, two of the characters face that loss. Literature, of course, is filled with stories about that pain and the coming to terms with it. Gloucester, with its rich heritage of both literature and loss, harbors a lot of these stories.

Most people know about The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, the story of the sinking of the Andrea Gale in the Halloween storm of 1991. Most of us around here didn’t know it was the “perfect storm” until the book came out. Around here is was the no-name storm or the Halloweeen storm. I was living in Marblehead then — on the ocean — and was having lunch at the Boulevard Oceanview a couple days later when someone came in and announced that the Andrea Gale was missing. I remember the silence that followed that announcement.

So Junger wrote his book and, at its center was Ethel Shatford who lost her son Bobby aboard that boat. The book captured the attention of a lot of people for it to become the best seller that it did and, up until the time of her death, people came to Gloucester and stopped at The Crow’s Nest to tell her how sorry they were. Her grief for her lost son struck a chord in hearts across the country — around the world — and people showed they cared.

Recently Stan Stone of On the Cove Blog told me about the book Gone Boy by Gregory Gibson. Stan said he read the book in a weekend and could not put it down. Gibson is a local antiquarian bookdealer who lives in the part of Gloucester called Lanesville, where Stan also lives. His son Galen was shot and killed by a fellow college student at Simon’s Rock College in the Berkshires in 1993 — two years after Bobby Shatford was lost at sea. I bought the book yesterday and, like Stan, I can scarcely put it down. It is remarkable.

The ability of a writer to travel inward to the core of his being and draw it up onto the page is a rare and astonishing gift. It is what makes the difference between a good writer and a great writer. Gregory Gibson is a great writer in this book. He writes from feelings that most of us will never experience, thank God. But in his willingness to take this inward journey and draw out what he finds there he gives his readers the opportunity to share in his loss. It is hard for me to explain what I feel as I read — anger, outrage, pain all mixed with compassion and understanding. As he begins his journey back to the college where his son died to find out how such a thing can happen I find myself feeling both anger at how the college administration could be so careless and, at the same time, the naive faith so many of us have that people are essentially good and it is wrong to project our fears onto them before they are proven to be bad or wrong or foolish or evil.

Leslie Wind called Gregory Gibson after we talked about this and he has agreed to be our next guest at the Hovey House Writer’s Group. I want to finish his book before meeting him — that won’t be a problem, I’ll probably finish it this weekend. In a way there is a part of me that is a bit timid about meeting the person who has written such a raw and powerful book. It seems almost as though his presence will be too much to bear.

But what I have learned through his book and through life is that there is no tragedy that cannot be redeemed by art. Art can’t take away the pain and art can’t make the loss less terrible. But art can elevate the loss. It makes meaning of something as seemingly random and meaningless as a storm that sinks a boat or the path of a bullet fired by a crazed killer. It offers great pain to the world and lets us share in feelings that we, God willing, will never experience alone.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Affluenza and The Beverly Hillbillies Syndrome

Two weeks ago at our weekly Tuesday dinner, Leslie showed up wearing a fabulous black wool Albert Nippon coat with fur collar and cuffs. “Can you believe this,” she said twirling around to show it off, “I found it at the Swap Shop at the dump.” I have long envied Rockport dwellers and their access to that place.

This week Jane showed up looking stunning in a white fox jacket with Joan Crawford shoulders, a stand-up collar, and a white satin lining. “I got this at the resale shop,” she said modeling it. She looked gorgeous.

I am genuinely happy for my friends and proud of them for frequenting places like the Swap Shop and resale stores but it always makes me wonder about the sort of people who can discard such incredible garments. People like Jane and Leslie benefit — good for them — but who can afford such amazing things and then just dump them hardly worn?

Last night I was invited to attend a seminar, “Sustainability and the Natural Step Framework: Possibilities for the Basilica, Our Community and the Earth”. It was held at the Essex Conference Center and conducted by Terry Gips of the Alliance for Sustainability in Minneapolis. I was impressed with how many people attended. This is an issue that more people who genuinely care about the earth and its future are trying to educate themselves and incorporate into their lives.

The focus of the Alliance for Sustainability is to educate people in a positive and scientifically informed manner as to what we have done to our planet so far and how we can begin to undo it. The damage is advanced — very advanced. We all know that but really don’t want to face it. The cover of a recent Time Magazine read “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Our planet’s resources are getting used up at a horrific rate and far too many of us are in denial, have an infantile sense of what science can, and cannot do, or just simply don’t care.

Much of the discussion last night was about conservation practices that can and have been implemented by cities, states and countries. All of us know about recycling, using eco-friendly and post-consumer products, reducing gasoline consumption etc. but the bottomline is we have to stop gobbling up resources at such a furious pace. It is killing us and it is destroying our planet.

One of the things I love about living in New England is the old Yankee tradition of thriftiness. Coming from a Pennsylvania Dutch background where thriftiness is a virtue comparable to honesty, this old Yankee value system is much appreciated. But the thrifty old Yankees are a dying breed and they are being replaced by a generation of self-absorbed consumers who simply cannot find enough ways to waste resources. People today are enjoying a level of affluence unprecedented in this country and what are they doing with their money? Showing off. I drive out the back shore or up Route 1A and an astonished at the humongous, gaudy, overblown private homes that are sprouting up everywhere. It reminds me of the old TV show The Beverly Hillbillies about a family of mountaineers who strike oil and move to Beverly Hills into a mansion and a lifestyle they are totally unprepared for simply to demonstrate what their money can buy.

Money is good, we all know that, and money can be used wisely to build or renovate homes in ways that will benefit the environment and humankind. But this disease we are infected with, this “affluenza” as John deGraf termed it, is destroying our planet and we choose not to see that. It’s fun when someone like Jane or Leslie benefit from someone else’s profligacy but the planet can’t keep bearing that. If you are interesting in learning more, contact Terry Gips in the Hillel Center at the University of Minnesota. By learning and using the principle os sustainability everyone’s needs can be met - there is unlimited learning, creativity, community and meaningful work for all. And we can save the planet for our grandchildren’s children in the process.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Knitting for Health

Herbert Benson, M.D. is the founder of the Mind-Body Institute at Harvard Medical School. His very popular book The Relaxation Response explored the health benefits of transcendental meditation and other calming, centering practices. For centuries religious people have known about the power of quiet prayer and meditation to bring the mind under control, quiet the brain, relax the body, and rejuvenate the spirit. In Eastern religions various types of meditations have long been practiced. Catholics throughout the centuries have found peace, focus, and joy in the quiet practice of praying the rosary every day. I remember how my grandmother, when things were chaotic and noisy in the house, would glance at her watch (it never mattered what time it was) and say, “Excuse me, it’s time for me to say the rosary.” Then she’d slip off to a quiet bedroom, close the door and get some peace.

Dr. Benson’s book Timeless Healing expands upon the health benefits of quiet, centering time. He outlines these steps:

1. Choose a “focus word” that you can repeat in your head as you center. This can be a mantra, a word such as “Ohm” or anything that you like – peace, relax, quiet, melody, ocean, calm.
2. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
3. Relax your muscles through a conscious tensing and then relaxing throughout the body.
4. Breathe slowly and naturally repeating your focus word.
5. Don’t criticize yourself. If your mind wanders just think “oh well” and return to your focus word.
6. Practice for twenty minutes, twice daily if possible.

Some people can do this without being otherwise occupied, just sitting quietly, But many find it beneficial to have a centering activity. Walking meditation has grown in popularity among those who have access to a quiet place to walk. Some people find a repetitive sports activity such as jogging or swimming to be effective for them. Many people use tai chi, chi gong or yoga in the same way. However, Dr. Benson adds some other interesting alternatives — prayer, of course, Lamaze breathing exercises, and ... knitting and crocheting. "Working with yarn provides stress relief," says Dr. Benson. "Like meditation or prayer, knitting allows for the passive release of stray thoughts. The rhythmic and repetitive quality of the stitching, along with the needles clicking resembles a calming mantra. The mind can wander while still focusing on one task."

Those of us who knit or crochet on a regular basis know how calming it can be to sit quietly with our work and just melt into the pleasure of it. Of course, this assumes you are not working on anything that requires a lot of concentration. When I am trying to learn a new lace pattern I am far from calm and centered. But it is good to always have a simple, undemanding project in progress for those meditative times. Lots of people knit socks as their “easy” project. That would probably drive me nuts. But long, simply knit scarves or the body of sweaters and shawls in simple stitches can lull me into a state of utter quiet and peace.

The health benefits are amazing. Better concentration, lowered blood pressure, improved sleep habits, reduction in chronic pain, boosting the immune system resulting in fewer colds and viruses are among the benefits documented at the Mind-Body Institute.

So last night I decided to try knitting meditation. I tend to multi-task — listening to audiobooks or the radio which is also very pleasant but my mind is always racing. Last night I put on some quiet, meditative music, got comfortable in my rocking chair, relaxed my muscles and picked my focus word — “believe”. I have a summer sweater in progress knit in plain stockinette out of a silky, soft pima cotton. It was a wonderful experience.

We all know our lives are too busy, our worries too many and our time to packed. But those of us who take time to knit also know the quiet beauty of the rhythm of the stitch. I loved this new (to me) way of knitting and am going to try to develop a daily practice around it. If nothing else, I’ll get a few projects done.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Saving Daylight

Saturday night, in the middle of the night, an hour disappeared and, consequently, Sunday stayed bright and sunny an hour later. I think this is a very good idea and can’t understand why we should have to get that hour back in the fall. I’m willing to donate an hour of my life to the cause of extra daylight.

Usually, I have a hard time adjusting to Daylight Savings Time when it begins in the spring. For a week afterwards I am sleepy and feeling like I am running behind schedule. Then in the fall, when we get the hour back, the days seem to go slower and I have this feeling of luxury — that I don’t have to hurry. But all that is minor in the cosmic scheme of things. Let’s just keep things as they are now — a little brighter at the end of the day — and stop all this clock changing nonsense.

Sometimes I wonder how I got to be as old as I am now and still feel like I have done so little in life. This is a thing I seem to be almost constantly aware of since I entered my fifties. Everyone has their own set of experiences. It’s a waste of time to compare your own accomplishments and failures with those of another but it is difficult not to. I’ve lost hours to stupider things than the hour I lost over the weekend and with much less cheerful results than an extra hour of daylight at the end of the day. It seems now, at this point in my life, I’m trying to make up for that. But that isn’t always a good idea either.

Yesterday was beautiful — brilliantly clear and sparkling. The waves were high and, though the thermometer read in the sixties, a brisk breeze kept the day from being too spring-like. Mark and I were out at Cape Hedge drinking coffee and talking and I enumerated all the things I wanted to get done on with the day. “Look,” he said, “why don’t you just take a day off?” A day off? What does that mean?

Recently my sister Anne asked if I ever took a day off from the computer. “Are you one of those people who has to have it on all the time and can’t go more than an hour without checking your email? I couldn’t stand that.” While I do frequently go for several hours without checking email, I admit the computer is usually on from morning until bedtime. Maybe it’s time to rethink this.

So yesterday morning I came home and changed the clocks. I left the computer off. It was a great day to putter at home with a window open to the fragrance of the harbor on the cool breezes. The curtains fluttered and I heard the windchimes ringing in the window for the first time this year. I did some cleaning up. Put away a few winter clothes (fingers crossed on that), cooked a nice lunch, and spent some time on the couch reading. It was nice. I didn’t even turn the radio on. The windchimes were enough.

I’m way behind on directions for the Mermaid Shawl. I’m at the final lace pattern and am having a little trouble re-constructing my original instructions so I worked on that for awhile and think I finally got it. Hopefully this week will see the last lace pattern published here. Then I went in my tiny sewing room and spent the better part of the afternoon organizing my stash, sorting through patterns to find the never-fail ones and tidying up the button box. I’m a compulsive notion buyer on eBay and had recently acquired lots of interfacing, twin needles, more buttons, elastic, etc. that are now all sorted into zip-lock bags, labeled, and waiting for me.

I didn’t turn the computer on all day. I survived. I haven’t checked my email yet this morning but am sure everyone got along without me just fine. The computer will stay on all day today but, now that there is more daylight at the end of the day, I plan to turn the computer off and go outside in the evening. I think we’ll both be better for it.

Thanks for reading.

Share It