Wednesday, October 31, 2007

BOO! Happy Halloween.

I love this time of year. The trees here are still full of leaves and the colors are about mid-way although this year they are not as brilliant as in years past. We’ve had a very dry, mild summer and that is not conducive to bright foliage. But it doesn’t matter. It is the quality of light that is glorious this time of year. Halloween, All Saint’s day and All Soul’s Day have always been special to me. They seem like a time of transition --- from activity and excitement to quiet and creative serenity. I love these days.

The last few days I have been caught up in a curious fascination. On the recommendation of a friend I rented the DVD of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s 8-part documentary The Staircase. It is the story of the trial of Michael Peterson in 2003 for the 2001 death of his wife, Kathleen. It is one of those films that you cannot explain what it is about it that would compel you to sit for 6 hours and watch it in total fascination but you do.

The story is a bizarre one. On a November evening he and Kathleen were sitting by the pool in the North Carolina home drinking wine and chatting. Kathleen had also taken a valium and she decided to go to bed. He stayed by the pool. Sometime later when he decided to go to bed he found his wife at the foot of the staircase, covered in blood and close to death. He called 911 but she died in his arms.

The filmmaker’s access to the parties involved is what amazes you. He follows every nuance and turn. You follow all the conversations and discussions, meetings with lawyers and witnesses. It is an intense piece of filmmaking and it is a bizarre story full of twists and shocks. I won’t detail them but the final outcome is the shocker. Despite the overwhelmingly inconclusive evidence, the jury not only found him guilty but found him guilty in the first degree. He is now serving a life sentence in prison.

What is shocking, at least to me, about this is that it seems very apparent that somewhere in the course of the case the jury decided they didn’t like this guy. He was rich and a writer and of questionable morals. He was also bisexual and had occasional flings with male prostitutes, a thing that his wife knew and accepted but the jury sure didn’t. From the point where the jury decided they didn’t like him, he was doomed. Nothing the defense did from that point on was going to change the mind of the jury.

What is interesting to me about this is how it somewhat parallels Jane Daniel’s story Bestseller! Which she is chronicling in her blog, When I read her story, as both a publisher and a writer, all I can do is marvel at how she knocked herself out to get that book to press and to get it promoted despite working with a terribly difficult client and an equally difficult co-author. Even if she made mistakes along the way, the fact that she worked as hard as she did can only make any other writer, who has dealt with publishers who do NOTHING, long for a publisher like Jane. Yet the jury found her guilty and tripled the judgment against her. Why?

In Peterson’s case the fact that he was bisexual made him a lot more guilty than anything he might or might not have done. In Jane’s case there was Jane, beautiful, elegant, articulate, well-heeled vs. Misha, the author who claimed to be a Holocaust survivor. The plain truth is Jane didn’t stand a chance.

What happens to litigants whom the jury decides to hate? Peterson is serving life in prison. Jane lost ten years of her life, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and is still fighting to save her home. And, as more of the story comes to light, the evidence is growing that the entire story just might have been a hoax. What happens if it is revealed that Misha deFonseca concocted the whole story? Is it possible that she deluded not only Jane and thousands of readers but a jury who sympathized with a poor holocaust survivor over a glamorous publisher who made the mistake of believing in her? The story is unfolding in real-time and it is compelling too.

So, on this Halloween the story of Michael Peterson, and of Jane Daniel, is a reminder that there is plenty to be scared of in this world. And much of it is real only in the minds of others. Trick or treat.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Being and Tenderness

Milan Kundera once said that the novelist is neither historian nor prophet but, rather, is an explorer of existence. In his collected essays, The Art of the Novel, he talks a lot about how he creates his characters. He believes in giving readers the maximum amount of information about each character and to include in that a good deal of information about the characters past. Without pasts characters cannot come alive, they do not vibrate off the page and, worse, they do not evoke our empathy and understanding.

In Kundera’s world the exploration of existence, and of a character’s existential struggle, is at the core of the novel. I think he may well be right about that. No matter how intriguing the setting, or lovely the prose, or ingenious the plot, or clever the dialogue, without depth and backstory characters are just ghosts moving through a landscape. We want to know who these people are and why on earth they are doing what they are doing.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about goodness and evil. In part because it is that time of year when the walls grow thin and one realm seems awfully --- dangerously --- close to the next. And partly because I am trying to understand the tendency in people and, thus, in characters to do very, very stupid things that only serve to make their lives more miserable and for what reason? That’s the question: for what reason? There have been several examples that are too close these days. Harsh words exchanged between mother and daughter, husband and wife, two friends. In every case there seems no good reason for the entire situation and yet, there it is. The words are said and cannot be unsaid, the feelings are there in all their raw disappointment. The situation might be smoothed over but it cannot be undone and this is the greatest sadness of all.

What happens inside someone that they feel that urge to lash out? Sometimes we are feeling hurt or diminished or unappreciated. Sometimes we are chafing under a different disappointment and misdirect the feelings. These are all the things that people feel and characters are created to explore. I have been thinking about a story in which two people have built mutual trust and appreciation and respect. And then there is conflict and one party lashes out saying the one thing --- the only thing --- that could cut to the quick, penetrate to the heart, and wound beyond healing. When we love someone and trust them we give them that power. If they exercise that power everything changes. What is that all about?

Kundera also speaks about tenderness in The Art of the Novel. About the tenderness that is needed between two people let trust happen. Tenderness, he writes, comes into being at the moment when life propels a man to the threshold of adulthood. He anxiously realizes all the advantages of childhood which he had not appreciated as a child. There is profound revelation in this. For many of us, that tender child is a little too close to the surface for our own comfort and much of our harshness is nothing more than protective armor for that tender child. Tenderness, Kundera writes, is the fear instilled by adulthood.

So, as I work on new characters, using them to explore bruised feelings and destructive words that alter forever what once was, I have to remember that hidden child unaware of how harsh words can change the its world forever.

I often speak about how fiction can explore what non-fiction cannot. Fiction is truth unencumbered by facts. The novelist who bears this in mind has both a considerable burden and a sacred mission. We write to explore our characters’ existences and, in doing so, we help others, and ourselves, explore our own.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sense of Place

Besides having a kickass football team, Boston College is an absolute wonder in many respects. My friend Jane, who read the first draft of Each Angel Burns, has never been there despite living in Newton for quite a few years. After reading my manuscript she said she loves the visuals in my writing. I told her that no amount of writing can convey how beautiful parts of BC are and I sent her a few photographs. She said, “You should put those in your book.”

I don’t know about putting them in my book but they are certainly an important part of my writing process. Whenever I write I collect many, many photos and pictures to help me with the writing --- images that might look like a character in the story, places that can help with descriptions, landscapes --- anything that will help the creative process along.

But Jane is right. Some of these pictures are so beautiful they really should be shared so, since I’m low on inspiration right now, I’ll post some here and hope they are an inspiration to others as well.

The first photo at the top is of Boston College. Most of these images came from various places on the Net so I hope I don’t offend anyone by borrowing them. Most are from BC’s web site. The second photo is the staircase inside Bapst Art Library where an early scene in the book takes place and then there is one inside Gargan Hall where Father Black first encounters the story of the missing Angel Gabriel statue.

Next are two photos taken inside Gasson Hall where one of the later scenes occurs when Gabe and Pete meet to talk. The statue of the Archangel Michael was created by an Italian sculptor, Tadolini, as mentioned in the story. The other picture shows one of the stained glass windows and two of the Schroen murals, also mentioned in the story. The man who painted them was a lay brother who had gone mad after the death of his beautiful young wife. He eventually sought refuge in a monastery and spent the rest of his life painting. It is a sad story and one I’d like to find room for in my book.

The last photo at BC is the altar in St. Mary’s Chapel where Father Black mentions saying Mass. I include it along with a photo of the crypt in the Cathedral of St. May Magdalene in Vezelay, France because I thought they were rather similar in tone and flow.
Finally, the last image is of the tomb of Heloise and Abelard in Pere Lachaise in Paris because it is there that one of the more romantic early scenes in the book take place. It is a wonderful thing to have these tools to help stimulate creativity and it is a joy to share them too. I hope they set you dreaming as they do for me.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

My Brain Hurts

Sometimes I just think too much. Lately, because of the research I have been doing for something I am writing, I have been reading books and watching documentaries about --- well --- about God. About, most specifically, how people experience God and how the brain functions in such experiences. And about the fine line between brilliance and madness.

A lot of this started when I watched a documentary some weeks back called Dangerous Knowledge. About four great mathematicians - Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing. All were brilliant men with brilliant minds and challenging theories. I have always wondered about the higher realms of mathematics. In college I took a course called Finite Math which at times seemed more like philosophy than math. But it introduced me to the concept of higher math and the awareness that mathematicians who function on that level are more like mystics than academics. Especially Georg Cantor who believed he was God’s emissary.

The thing is all four of those mathematicians ended up mad and committed suicide or died in asylums. Frightening thought.

Then I watched a BBC documentary about Frederick Nietzsche called Human All Too Human. When I was in college working on a minor in philosophy I was pretty enchanted by Frederick Nietzsche for awhile. I was particularly fascinated by his slave-sovereign theory. I remember getting into a rather impassioned debate in class with a fellow student about it. It was a stimulating discussion and ended when I came to the conclusion that the debate was pointless because ultimately when two individuals of unequal intellect get into a debate, the less intellectually gifted participant is simply incapable of understanding the thinking of the more intellectual one. The professor in that class took me aside after class and told me to be wise in using that bit of knowledge. I haven’t always been.

But, Nietzsche, too, like Cantor, Boltzman, and Gödel, died in madness, though not by his own hand. His genius was simply too much for his mental constitution to bear. Of course there is also the issue of possible venereal disease but one never knows.

Anyway, last night I encountered a third fascinating BBC documentary, God on the Brain. Brain researchers have begun to link a form of temporal lobe epilepsy with mystical experiences. This has lead them to research brain functioning while people are engaged in mystical experiences and they have found that the stimulation of certain portions of the brain can create a “God experience” that seems to be much like what many of the great mystics describe. What they did that was interesting was they developed a machine that could stimulate the brain and then give experimental subjects that experience which, of course, makes one wonder if it is God mystics are experiencing or just something going on in the brain.

What they did that I particularly loved was invite outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins to participate in the experiment which, to his credit, he did. They filmed it and, though they tried several variations of the experiment Dawkins never experienced what the others did. He felt very relaxed and happy but he never “got God”.

Okay, so now my poor brain is worn out from all this knowledge and the thinking I have been doing about it. I’ve always said that knowing that the human brain is far more capable than any of us can begin to imagine is what makes me trust that there really is a God. Maybe when we our brains get sophisticated enough we’ll be capable of understanding what this God stuff is all about. Until then we --- or at least I --- need Faith.

At the end of God on the Brain one of the researchers was talking about the eternal human longing for God that seems to be an integral part of mankind. When asked if he thought this brain research would prove that “God” was just a function of our brains. He replied saying maybe, but maybe putting that function in our brains was God’s way of giving us a means to communicate with him. I can live with that.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

I’m Scared of My Yarn!!!!

This happens all the time. I buy some really, really wonderful yarn that is silk or cashmere or some luscious, rare and wonderful thing and I get it home and then the panic sets in. What am I going to do with this that is worthy of this wonderful stuff and that I won’t screw up and waste it? Aurgh!!!!

Several years ago on a brilliant autumn day, much like today was, I decided to drive out to Northampton to Webs. Oh my! I had the most wonderful time. I had so much stuff when I was driving back that I actually had stuff on my lap. Most of it was highly useable and did, in fact get used. But there was this one rare treasure --- a 2.5 lb. Cone of silk chenille in a color called “Pearl” that I was mad about. Well, over the years I have been intimidated continually by this yarn. There is enough to make something really fabulous but I have been frittering it away in bits and pieces because I can’t commit to something really grand. Recently I decided that I really do love those lacy gloves with the fingers that end at the middle knuckle so right now I am making a pair of those out of my pretty silk chenille but that will still leave me with enough to make heaven only knows how many more dumb little projects.

While I was thinking about that I remembered a gorgeous skein of cashmere I bought some years back that I have been “saving”. I went looking for it and discovered that I had actually started a scarf (left) from it and then put it away for some unknown reason. So I got that out and am going to get back to it when I finish these gloves. I also have about a foot of a scarf --- “Arabesque” from one of the Mary Thomas books --- in a lovely, lemon yellow 50% cashmere/50% silk (right) that I started and then got intimidated by.

WHY does this happen??? What goes on in my head that I get this beautiful stuff, start something wonderful and then chicken out? I know I have several other treasures that I have been saving which is just a euphemism for avoiding. In the meantime I knit up all sorts of stuff in inexpensive yarns I buy on eBay.

I have 2 skeins of a 50/50 wool/silk from Lorna’s Laces and a big cone of fingering weight cashmere in the most gorgeous shade of deep pink. They’ve been around for years.

All I can think is that I get overwhelmed by the possibilities of these beautiful things and am afraid to screw up. It is a sad commentary on my opinion of my own knitting.

Tonight I went out for dinner. I didn’t want to change clothes, I’m wearing black narrow-leg trousers and a deep rose-colored long-sleeved tee. But I did want to look nice so I got out a cocoon I never wear. I knit it of 50/50 cashmere/silk (left) and it is so beautiful but it has been in the closet, unworn for ages. I got lots of compliments on it and I felt so elegant wearing it. I don’t get it… is this a self-esteem thing I’m struggling with?

So I am making a resolution --- I will start using all this luscious premium yarn and who actually CARES what I make with it, just use it! And when it is done I will WEAR it or give it to someone who will enjoy owning it. Enough already with saving these things until I am “worthy” of them.

On another slightly different note, I am having a great time making these lacy gloves. I think they will be great fun to wear and I’m looking forward to making more of them. They’ll make great gifts and be a fun way to use up odds and ends of my more elegant yarns. I found a terrific pattern at KnitPicks. And they have some very tempting yarns because heaven knows I may not have enough in my stash….

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 22, 2007

How About That Dumbledore Anyway?

Well. Goodness.

So Albus Dumbledore was gay! Who knew? Guess all my suspicions about him and Minerva McGonigal and their late night meetings in dressing gowns was wrong. Well, he was a bit of a dandy. I mean that purple velvet suit!!! Well.

I’m speechless.

Actually this is quite wonderful for the simple reason that it shows to the reading public something that fiction writers have always known. 1.) Characters often do as they damn please regardless of your opinion, and 2.) there is a LOT about characters that the author may know that just never becomes part of the story. It’s that unstated stuff that makes characters come alive on the page and makes readers become enthralled by them.

J.K. Rowling has given the world a great many gifts --- not just her 7 magical books with their fascinating characters. Because her books have achieved such celebrated status and there is so much fascination about how they were written and how she did what she did the reading world has gotten to see into the life of a writer and what goes on in that world. I’ve watched a couple documentaries and interviews with her and I love to hear what she has to say. In one she talked about how she drew --- floorplans, sketches of creatures, maps, all sorts of things to enhance her visual awareness when she writes. This is a thing I relate to because I have spent hours doing the same thing --- drawing the layout of Maggie’s abbey or a street map of Clair’s world because if I can’t see it as I write, how will the reader see it as they read?

So finding out that Rowling always “thought of Dumbledore as being gay” is quite a delicious insight into her process from my perspective. And I am glad that she told us about it. That’s one of those delicate balance things --- how much to reveal about a character. Given the age of her target audience it was smart that she didn’t reveal that in the books. In fact I sort of wonder how it will impact readers who may just be beginning the Harry Potter books. Will knowing that as they begin to read change their perception? Will some parents refuse to allow their books to read them because of that? I know the books have suffered heavy criticism because of the magical element from some fundamentalist sects. Well, having sold over 100 million books, I’m sure Rawling isn’t losing sleep over that.

It’s funny what readers bring to stories too. A woman who had just finished The Old Mermaid’s Tale was telling me how sexy and delicious she found Baptiste. “I’ve always been really turned on by men with long hair and beards,” she confided. Uhhhhhhhh --- Baptiste doesn’t have a beard, I said. She was indignant. Yes, he does! No, I said. In the book Pio has a beard but not Baptiste. “You’re wrong,” she said. “You must have forgotten now that you’re working on a new book.”

Maybe, I conceded. It’s always a mistake to argue with someone’s fantasy.

Reading is a magical process. Someone recently told me that not reading is no different from not being able to read and I thought there was much to that (other than labels in the grocery store). I have two great leisure time passions --- knitting and books. And since the popularity of audible books I often get to both at the same time. There is nothing on earth I love more than falling under the spell of story. And when there is an enchanting character who enflames my imagination so much the better. When I was enthralled by the Harry Potter books those characters were so alive in my imagination that if one of them had turned up on my doorstep I would have been thrilled and invited them in for tea (I’m frequently out of pumpkin juice). And that is a credit to Rowling and her ability to create characters that jump off the page.

So, Dumbledore, well. Why not! Maybe that’s what the world needs --- a much loved character who is part of a maligned minority. Thanks, J.K. You’ve done us all a favor.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Another Knitter’s Gathering

Today was the October meeting of our knitter’s group. This is an event which I always look forward to but which I have missed quite a lot lately. My weekends have been busy and I’ve missed these events.

I hadn’t seen most of the regulars in the group since last Spring and it was, as ever, a joy to see them. Most of them had not seen me since I started my low-carb eating and let my hair return to it’s natural color so, of course, it was flattering to hear nice comments.

But the best part is to share what we are all working on. This month we met at Connie’s house so we had the added delight of being able to meet with a sweeping view of the ocean and the Twin Lighthouses of Thacher’s Island, too. Connie has been busy knitting cotton and linen string bags to give to friends and family as gifts. These are the nicest bags and can be carried conveniently in your purse for impromptu stops at the grocery. I have gotten the pattern and want to make some, too. It’s a good way to use up odds and ends of cotton and linen yarn, as well as conserve by using a reuseable shopping bag.

Gwen is using up odds and ends of wool by crocheting an afghan in bright, pretty colors. Florence is making another one of the thick fuzzy scarves she makes to give to friends and coworkers. Sue is knitting scarves in school colors for her grandchildren. Maureen is making gorgeous, bright oversized tote bags to be felted. Cynthia had some of the loveliest chenille I’ve ever seen in soft, mossy tones from which she plans to make a sweater. Mary Kay is knitting a sweater for a new grandbaby --- on and on.

What I love about our meetings is just the opportunity to be with like-minded women who love to talk about books and what is going on in the world and show-off our latest yarn acquisitions. ALL of us have far more yarn than we’ll ever use in this or any other lifetime. All of us have more projects started than we want to own up to. All of us want to make a thousand other things, too. We shared our latest online discovers and I always come away from these meetings with a mile long list of yarn sites to visit, blogs to read, patter sources to browse, and my head bursting with ideas.

We all bring treats --- cupcakes and chocolate cake and other naughty things. I bring rosemary ham and Swiss cheese. Connie, our other low-carb-conscious member brought a cheese and spinach quiche. We eat and talk and knit and talk and share and talk and talk.

I love these women. We have been meeting to knit together for four years now and most of us don’t see one another at any other time. But we share our lives and our sorrows and joys. It is a beautiful way to spend the day. Connie told about her recent trip to the Grand Canyon and her adventure on the Skywalk --- I wouldn’t go at the point of a loaded gun! I could barely look at the pictures. We talked about our respective sojourns on Thacher’s Island. I spent a weekend there with friends a few years back and it is one of the most peaceful, serene, alternate universe experiences I can imagine. I think we should plan a knitter’s retreat there. I can’t imagine anything more wonderful than spending a weekend on that island with this group of knitters… We are lucky to have found one another.

So we will try to get together again next month and I will plan to have a new project started by then. I want to knit a pair of lace gloves rather like the ones in the Annie Modisett book. Not as long but I have this vision of beautiful, lacy gloves in pretty colors to go with my “new” recycled plum-colored rabbit-fur coat. Creativity inspires more creativity. Ideas grow and blossom when they are shared. We are lucky women and we know that.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


I have written before about how, when I am writing away, working on a project that I am enthusiastic about, strange and wonderful little coincidences seem to happen. Whenever these show up they are sufficiently amazing that they make me stop, take a deep breath, and think “wow, something very cool just happened.” So here is the latest story I have to tell.

Ten years ago I was taking some classes at Boston College. I loved going there. Gasson Hall is one of the most gorgeous places I have ever been to and Gargan Hall in Bapst Art Library can take your breath away. How can you not feel inspired in such inspiring environments? While I was there I had the opportunity to take a weekend workshop on a subject I was interested in with a visiting priest/educator that everyone thought highly of. It was a transformative weekend.

Father Steve was an impressive man and a wonderful teacher. He was tall and good looking, very masculine and intense but, more than anything, intelligent on a level that was both impressive and inspirational without being intimidating. He was warm, encouraging, and stimulating without being inappropriate or condescending. I just loved him for all of that and loved that workshop.

When I began work on my novel Each Angel Burns and created the character of Father Peter Black I thought about Father Steve a lot. I wanted my Fr. Pete to have the same presence and dignity that Fr. Steve had. Naturally there are differences but the essence of Fr. Pete was inspired by Fr. Steve. As I am continuing to work on the book I have been reading a lot about the Church, priests, mysticism, all the things I feel I need to bring Fr. Pete to life.

As is always the case when I write I am acquiring books by the stack. Recently I picked up three books on related subjects including one about the priesthood that was advertised as “wise advice about the joys and the challenges of the priesthood, written for priests by a priest”. I read about it on an Amazon List by a young seminarian who held the book in high regard. It arrived on Tuesday and I settled down late in the evening to read. I’m always looking for insights into the world my characters inhabit.

The book was just excellent --- intelligent, highly readable, filled with insights that I was only dimly aware of and, though it was written for priests, it contained a lot of material that would be useful to everyone. Including insights into what it means to live a life of integrity. I was zooming through the book, marveling at its accessibility as well as its richness and I thought that I would like to read more by this author. I flipped the book to the last page hoping for an Author’s Biography and there, staring up at me from the page, was Father Steve. I literally cried! The very priest who had served as the basis for the character I am trying to create was now giving me advice on how to mold him. Utterly amazing.

His name is Father Stephen J. Rossetti and the book is The Joy of Priesthood. I’m not sure I ever knew his last name. I must have but I had certainly forgotten it. He is an admirable man who graduated from the Air Force Academy and served as an intelligence officer before entering the priesthood. He had doctorates from Boston College and Catholic University and is the CEO of St. Luke’s Hospital in Maryland, a treatment center for clergy experiencing psychological problems. I discovered that he has also written a book on mysticism that I want to order. I am so amazed.

I think it was Bill Moyers who once said that coincidences are God’s way of acting anonymously. No kidding, Bill.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Spiritual Discipline of Ripping Out

Well, I was zipping right along working on my beautiful Shawl of Falling Leaves and Shooting Stars. I finished the Faggotting Stitch I was using as a transitional pattern and set to work on the Shooting Stars pattern. I carefully plotted out the stitches for the new pattern and the stitches that would go in between. I carefully studied the chart and was sure I had it figured out and, with all the confidence of the deluded, I set to work. Two inches later my delusion became apparent.

I have an amazing ability to convince myself that I know what I am doing even when all evidence points to the fact that I do not. I never let that bother me. But, of course, eventually I am faced with the dilemma that I either have to rethink what I want to accomplish here or I have to admit I screwed up. Sigh.

So I am looking at this beautiful fiber and the beautiful work so far and facing the harsh reality that I have to rip out and do it over.

There is something humbling in this experience for knitters --- or I suppose for anyone. However this does bring us to one of life’s interesting challenges --- when you screw up do you just blithely continue down that path or do you stop, take stock, back up and start again. I suppose there is a case to be made that your choice says a lot about your character.

I’m the first one to admit that I often choose the former. But there are times when I know that, if I don’t back up I am simply not going to be happy with the final outcome and so, despite the pain involved, I decide to back up. I did this recently with the gold rayon handbag that I knit. I had it nearly finished and I looked at it and hated the stitch I had done it in. Actually I knew early on that I hated that stitch but for some dumb reason I thought I might “get” to like it. Right. So, when it was darn near finished, I ripped it all out. Actually, that felt pretty good, and I started over. I love the result.

However with this shawl it might be different. If I can successfully just back it up to the place where I started the Shooting Stars pattern and then pick up the row of stitches before that it won’t be bad. It IS wool, after all, and wool holds it’s stitches better than rayon or silk do.

So, well, maybe I’ll work on something else for awhile until I get the courage to start ripping. I did that with a bedjacket I was working on and I was very glad that I did. The result was just lovely and I felt ever so virtuous for admitting I screwed up and starting over.

It’s kind of ironic because I am also backing up and making a fresh start on my current novel-in-progress. I got the whole thing written (I thought) and gave it to two friends to read. Both of them fell utterly in love with the characters but had a problem with a significant turn of the plot. At first I tried to explain it to them --- to make them see how dreadful their reading skills were. But then I admitted that maybe the writing was the problem. All the clues were there, it just needed a little more development. Of course, that’s a risk you always run when writing something with a component of mystery. You want to give all the clues without giving away the plot.

So, October is a good month for fresh starts, I guess. There is a long winter ahead and, lucky for me, I like winter --- it forces me to be quiet and contemplative and focus on my work. I will begin again. And things will be better for it.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Happy 85th Anniversary

Like a lot of people who tend by nature to be somewhat reclusive, I have a sort of mixed anxiety/excitement when I need to attend a social function that is a little out of the ordinary. First of all I never know what to wear. I know most women have that problem but I’m worse than most. At least I think I am. I can spend the entire night before going over what I have in my closet in my head and then spend another half-hour staring into the closet. Oh well. Ultimately, I decide “who cares what you wear, you’re not that important” and then I obsess some more.

Yesterday was the party for the people involved in the creation of the North Shore Arts Association’s 85th Anniversary exhibition, The Past & The Present” and, though it was not open to the public, I knew a lot of local politicians and artists had been invited. My first instinct was to find a reason to stay home but I do that too often and I really did want to go. After the amount of work I, among others, put in on that exhibition, I deserved to party.

So, after driving myself nuts, I put on a white, long-sleeved teeshirt and a pair of black sueded-rayon slacks and, on impulse, my black and silver velvet kimono with trees embroidered in silver thread around the hem. I’ve owned it for years and only worn it twice. And I went to the party.

It was a wonderful event. I knew most of the people there and had the opportunity to talk with a few people that I hadn’t seen since I left the board of directors at seARTS. As is always the case at NSAA, the food was amazing. There was music and wine and old friends and, of course, the most fabulous art. I had an absolutely wonderful time. And didn’t get home until… well…

Afterwards I thought, why do I do that? Why does anyone do that --- convince themselves that they shouldn’t attend an event that they will have a wonderful time at? All out of nerves and a fear that you’ll be wearing the wrong thing. When I was young I was a very social person and always had a good time at anything I did but, as I’ve gotten older, that seems to be changing. I don’t think it is so much fear of the event itself as it is a sense that time is running out, the days are dwindling down, and one shouldn’t waste them.

I’m not about to say that socialization is never a waste because I think there are times when it is. I realize that many people have a great deal of difficulty being alone and tend to fill their time with all sorts of busy-ness just to avoid that. I don’t understand that either. I’ve been blessed with wonderful people in my life but 90% of what I feel I have yet to accomplish in this life require me to spend quiet time alone, mostly at the computer, writing or designing or marketing. Time isn’t the long, endless path it once was.

But taking time to be with familiar, beloved faces and enjoying a happy occasion is important, too. So I am glad I went to the party and I am certainly glad that I had the party to go to. Happy 85th Anniversary, North Shore Arts Association. I hope I get to celebrate many more such occasions with you.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 12, 2007

More About Knitting

I have a tendency to fall in love with colors and then acquire way too much stuff in that color. First it was violet and I still have bags of violet yarn, then it was periwinkle and I have plenty of that, too. About a year or so ago I fell in love with deep pinks --- everythind from "Barbie" Rose to fuschia. I am still sort of in that phase although it seems aquamarine and sky blue are next on the horizon. Anyway, i still love all those colors and am glad I have the yarn though heaven only knows when I'll find time to use it all.

Recently I was reading about Banana Silk - a rayon-like plant fiber made from banana plants. It is especially noted for the high-sheen of the fiber. So I had to have some and found a really great deal on eBay. The stuff arrived recently and i must say it is interesting. It has quite a bit of weight so will be very drape-y. The dye is inconsistent and misses the fiber altogether in some places (left) but that's fine. The color I ordered is called Hot Pink and it ranges from a warm rose to a deep rose. I have 15 skeins of the stuff and am planning a cropped vest or jacket depending on how it knits up. This should be interesting.

Mostly I am working on my Shawl of Falling Leaves and Shooting Stars which I am making along the same design as my Mermaid Shawl only with different lace patterns. I'm knitting it in Knit Pick's Wool of the Andes in the color they call "Tulip" which a beautiful, rich fuschia. EVERYBODY who stops to look at it when I am KIP (Knitting In Public) swoons over the color. I have completed the Falling Leaves part of the design and it looks really nice. Left is the center back and you can see how nicely the pattern is working with the increases (click on the photo to enlage). Next I decided to work a few inches of just plain faggoting stitch to transition into the Shooting Stars pattern. I was worried about how the lace designs would transition into one another but it is actually working out great as you can see at right. I had to do a little fudging by increasing one stitch per repeat of the pattern between the leaves but then when I got to the end of the leaf I could decrease one sot get back to the appropriate number of stitches. I am knitting on both sides to make a garter-stitch faggotting which I really like the look of. I think I'll work to a total of five or so inches before I start the Shooting Stars which is very similar to Frost Flowers. I Googled "Frost Flowers" recently and found a beautiful jacket made entirely in the Frost Flowers Pattern. Now that I have this Barbara Walker Lace Treasury I want to try all sorts of new lace patterns. I was looking at the Sampler Tabard in A Gathering of Lace and think that could easily be adapted to try out many different laces.

Finally, my last completed project is a very cool handbag knit in a gorgeous burnished gold rayon from an eBay vendor (right). I just made up the design using a basketweave pattern from Gisela Klopper's Beautiful Knitting Patterns. I've already taken it out with me several times and it gets lots of compliments but I think I need to line it. It is starting to stretch more than I thought rayon would. Luckily I have some beautiful gold satin leftover from a banner I made some time ago. I think it will look great. And I'll reinforce the strap with some webbing, too. I've made four of these shoulder bags now --- three from rayon and one from recycled sari silk. I need to spend some time in my sewing room lining them so they can be used. Heaven knows I've got enough fabric in there to do that.

I also finished my beautiful Wild Roses wrap using yarn from Handpainted Yarns. I used their Novelty Boucle 100% wool yarn in Wild Roses. It is just gorgeous -- I'll have tog et a picture of that to post.

So that's where knitting is taking me these days. It's very "rosey" here but that's a good thing.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Happy Birthday Eleanor and Elmore

I heard on the radio this morning that today is the birthday of Eleanor Roosevelt and Elmore Leonard. Certainly both admirable folks. Eleanor Roosevelt once said that no one can make you feel inferior without your permission. Wise words and certainly something I need to remind myself of from time to time.

It’s hard at times to remember that we are all complex beings (well, most of us are) with many aspects to our character. We are living in an era of “one strike and you are out” — a thing that annoys the b’jesus out of me. It seems that the primary objective of way too many people is to find a flaw in the character or lives of nearly everyone and then, despite all the worthy things they have done, use that flaw to beat them up endlessly. Sure, maybe so-and-so is a terrific artist but he used to be quite a drunk so there, ha-ha. Sure, so-and-so is accomplished and dresses great but we hear her house is a mess so there, ha-ha. I don’t understand that need to find a flaw. Does it make the finder feel better? See Eleanor’s words above.

I admit I haven’t read a lot of Elmore Leonard’s work but I admire him. He wrote 22 books before one became successful. How can you NOT admire that sort of tenacity? I was watching an interview with writer Anne Lamotte the other night and she said that she wrote five books before she was able to give up her day job. I found that encouraging since this business of writing books is proving to be not much more than a glorified hobby — but a hobby that I love and can get lost in.

Leonard was unusual as a crime writer in that his books were focused more on the character of the characters than on the story itself. For those of us who love character-driven books that is encouraging. It is a good thing to be reminded that a character can be so engaging that readers take them to heart and consider them friends (dare I even mention that endearing young wizard Harry Potter?)

Leonard once said that, after he writes a book, he still thinks about his characters and wonders what they are doing now that the book is over. This is a thing I fully understand — I’ve lived with that for years. Most of my characters are dear to my heart or, at least, objects of fascination. I have frequently sat down and written pages and pages of stuff about particularly engaging characters --- pages that never made it into the book just because I wanted to spend more time with that person. I wanted to know them better. In The Old Mermaid’s Tale both Baptiste and Chris became such characters. I wrote many scenes that there was really no point to including in the book but just because I liked them so much that I wanted to know more about them.

That’s the thing about characters in a book — in one sense they are your children because you create them and give them life and form and you shape their characters. But, ultimately, they are only phantoms so there is inherent in them a sort of vacuous longing for more when, really, there is no more. Actually, I’ve been in relationships like that, too.

So today is the birthday of two distinguished people who have added good ideas to my life and to the lives of others. It is also the day when the Nobel Prize for Literature will be announced.

Wonder if I’ll get it?

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Knitting Books

My knitting friends always say that they would love to see my library of knitting books. If they did they would be surprised — I don’t have that many. An original edition of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitting Without Tears that I bought for a quarter at a church sale, a couple of old-fashioned knitting manuals reproduced by Dover and one of the Mary Thomas books and a few books on Aran stitch designs. Those books don’t come off the shelf that much any more.

The three books that are beside the place where I knit and which I refer to a lot are The Best of Knitter’s Magazine’s Shawls and Scarves, Meg Swansen’s beautiful A Gathering of Lace and Gisela Klopper’s Beautiful Knitting Patterns. There are also several old issues of Knitters or Interweave Knits magazines that have something special in them — the Forest Path Stole which I really am going to try someday, and a couple of lacy Lily Chin tops.

So a week or so ago I was feeling self-indulgent and I decided to buy myself two new books. Well, new to me — one is quite old. I ordered from Amazon — Barbara G. Walker’s 1965 classic A Treasury of Knitting Patterns and, on impulse, Annie Modisett’s Romantic Hand Knits. They arrived over the weekend.

Now, let me say that I love Annie Modisett’s designs. That adorable silk “corset-cover” she features on her site is wonderful and some of her hat designs are just brilliant. So I was really looking forward to this book. Unfortunately reality did not live up to my fantasies. There are a few really pretty items in it (all named for her favorite movies). The Casablanca top is pretty and sexy and there are some lovely long black lace gloves and the cutest pair of silk lace stockings a knitter could ask for. But beyond that ... well ... maybe I’m out of touch on what constitutes “romantic”. Actually Annie’s definition of romantic in the introduction is absolutely beautiful and I agree completely. So how come she designed these weird clothes?

Actually, I suspect I am just getting old. Maybe a twenty-something knitter would fall in love with the bizarre Two for the Road sweater or the down-right ugly All About Eve wrap-skirt (a knitted wrap-skirt???) I don’t get it. But, as I’ve said before, I am totally in favor of getting young people to knit and if these designs do it then that’s great. I’ve long ago accepted that a good many knitters want simple patterns that they can make in funky, unusual yarns. But I really wanted a knitter of Annie Modisett’s skill and style to create some designs that were more — well — romantic.

The other book by Barbara G. Walker is just gorgeous, wonderful, how-did-I-live-without-it! I spent a good chunk of Saturday afternoon with that book paging through it (and there are close to 300 pages) and making notes on the designs I am dying to learn and incorporate in something. I’m really not a knitter who makes other people’s designs much anyway. I have a few basic patterns that I like to gussy-up by using a combination of interesting lace patterns. That’s what I did when I made The Mermaid Shawl and its variation The Gypsy Shawl made from recycled sari silk from Tibet. Now I am doing a third variation in Wool of the Andes. So far it is looking beautiful.

So, I learned a few things from these two books and hope to learn a lot more from the Walker book. I still love Annie Modisett’s skill and I’m not sorry I bought the book. I’ll borrow some design elements from it. But I learned one thing for sure — nest time I get the urge to buy a new knitting book I’ll buy an old one.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Today’s Troubadours

Much to my surprise and delight I received an email yesterday from Gail Parker Rogers, wife of musician Garnet Rogers, telling me she had just finished reading The Old Mermaid’s Tale and that she enjoyed it. What a lovely surprise and how kind of her to write. In the acknowledgments at the back of the book I thanked the many singer/songwriters whose work I admire — among them Gordon Bok, Francis Cabrel, Jack Hardy, Daniel Lanois, Gordon Lightfoot, Bill Miller, Bill Morrissey, and Stan and Garnet Rogers. I added that “in the wee hours of the morning when I struggled over the writing and Baptiste sang to me, he always sang with Garnet’s voice”.

Her letter was very sweet and full of the love and admiration that the wife of such an extraordinary singer/poet could not help but feel. I was honored by her openness.

When I created Baptiste and his growing dedication to his music and the songs he wrote I was trying to pay homage to all the folk musicians, or singer/songwriters as they are now called, whose music has been so meaningful throughout the years. Here in the Boston area there are several good folk music programs on the radio — including Folk Heritage, WUMB’s programming and, the Irish version, Celtic Sojourn. I’d always been aware of folk but it wasn’t until I moved here and began listening to the contemporary folk that I realized what a beautiful artform it is.

You have to listen to the lyrics. When I lived in Marblehead I joined the me and thee Coffeehouse just so I could get to see these amazing performers there and, in fact, that is where I saw Garnet Rogers perform for the first time (and the second and the third). When you listen to the songs, to the words that tell the stories, you begin to understand how extraordinary their work is. They take little stories, little incidents from people’s lives that might otherwise go unnoticed, and transform them into a lovely little jewel of art. The music and the stories are modern myths and these itinerant troubadours, who travel around from town to town playing in little churches and coffeehouses and pubs keep those myths alive. They often travel in beat-up cars, sleep in the homes of friends or even in those cars, just for the opportunity to sing, to present their stories to audiences that are often very small.

In The Old Mermaid’s Tale Baptiste cannot believe that anyone would want to hear his story/songs about mariners and ordinary people but Clair tells him that his songs give dignity to lives that might otherwise seem insignificant to people. I think of some of the story/songs that have been most moving to me — about a man who raised homing pigeons, or an old racehorse who gives birth to a colt, or a lost brother. Had it not been for Gordon Lightfoot’s song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald the sinking of that ship in 1975 would have gone unnoticed by the world.

Keeping stories alive and sharing them in a way that others can participate in and find beauty, solace and identification is a ministry of sorts. It is a way of honoring lives that are often forgotten. These are things that Baptiste comes to understand as his appreciation for his music grows. But it is something we would all do well to consider — that we all have our ministry to keep hope alive, to bring comfort to a battered world.

So I will end this with a link to a YouTube video of Garnet Rogers performing “Night Drive”, the song he wrote in honor of his lost brother, and which was so meaningful to me when my brother died. Thank you, Sir Troubadour, for this beautiful song and for the part you played in the creation of Baptiste.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Spicy Ladies

There are people who say they never re-read a book, that there are too many books waiting to be read for them to go back and re-read. I don’t feel that way. If a book is particularly beautiful or entertaining or rich in language and ideas I love to re-read if only to revel in the richness of language and the experience of being in a treasured place. It’s like visiting a favorite city again or an old friend.

Recently while doing battle with the constantly growing piles of books in my house I came across two old friends and took them out to re-read. What a joy! When I first read them it was probably years apart but reading them one after the other this time I was struck by the similarities despite being about women of very different cultures.

Emma is a midwife in contemporary England. Tilo comes from India to open a spice shop in contemporary Los Angeles. Both of them are descended from long and ancient lines of women who practice the ancient arts of healing and of the lore of herbs and spices. Both of them hear the voices of the women who have gone before them and use the magic and the arts of their foremothers to heal those whom they serve in their lives.

Tilo comes to life in the pages of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices. As a child Tilo possessed the gift of second sight and her family benefitted from the wealth and recognition it brought them but Tilo made them pay by being a perfect brat. After being kidnaped by pirates she wound up on the Island of Spices where she began to train for a ministry as a mistress of spices. Her training complete, she passed through Shampati’s fire and emerges in her spice shop in Los Angeles.

Into her shop come all the sad stories Indian immigrants to California can bring and Tilo employs the magic of the spice to offer comfort, support and healing. Until one day another sort of Indian arrives — a beautiful man who sees through her appearance as a wizened old wise woman to the much younger woman inside. Raven is an American Indian who was raised by a mother ashamed of her heritage who tried to keep him as far from the reservation as possible. What results is magic.

Emma lives in German author Eva Figes’ gorgeous little book The Seven Ages. She has retired to a cottage in the English countryside where she spends her days gardening, trying to keep peace between her two grown but still bickering daughters, and listening to the voices from her own fireplace. They tell the story of seven generation of women who lived lives that seem little changed from century to century despite the goings on in the rest of the world. Pregnancies and child-births, rapes and persecutions, lovers and husbands, and always the comforting magic of herbs that soothed their labors and healed their wounds.

Both of these books are written in language that is utterly beautiful. To read them is to slip into another time and into other lives and to be there with great appreciation for the gift of that. With both of them I savored every page and was glad I had revisited them because I hadn’t fully appreciated before how gorgeous they are.

So it is time to put them back on their shelves and read something else. But they will be there, waiting, when I need to get away again.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

More Real than Real

Whenever people say “Oh, I don’t read fiction” I always say that is a pity because sometimes fiction is more truthful than non-fiction. And more universal. Last night I got proof of this in a very touching way.

I have been working on a short-story for a couple weeks now. I call it “The Mermaid’s Shawl” because the seeds of the story lie in the creation of my own mermaid shawl and I finally started to write. When I have a draft that I am okay with I usually give my stories to a couple of trusted friends to get feedback. The first feedback from Lois, Maureen and Leslie was very good.

The story is about a woman who meets a mariner from another land, how that comes about and what happens. It is a fairly simple love story, like so many of mine are, which plays with how we come to love who we do and how that transforms us. I still have work to do on it but things are going well.

I have a neighbor I am very, very fond of. She has lived in Gloucester all her life and now, over eighty, is always a delight to spend time with. She tells me about the “wild” years here in Gloucester and her own colorful youth. Last night I stopped to visit her, as I sometimes do. She is one of my most sincere fans. She read The Old Mermaid’s Tale three times and was lavish with praise for it. So, as I was leaving, I gave her a copy of the short story and told her it was still in progress but I thought she might enjoy it.

About an hour later there was a knock at my door and it was, to my surprise, my neighbor. She was holding my manuscript and a small tape player. “I want you to hear something,” she said.

She played the tape for me. It was a message left on an answering machine tape many years ago. The voice was a man with a thick accent who had called to tell her how much he loved her. The message was long and sincere and filled with a poignancy that I was astonished by. He talked about how beautiful she was and how he remembered the dress she wore and how he thought of her wearing that dress when he returned to port and came back to her again. He talked about his hopes for the two of them and how she was in his heart and always on his mind. It was a beautiful message, a treasure any woman would hold dear.

While we listened her eyes filled with tears — and so did mine. Clearly this man from another country had been utterly besotted by her. “I just wanted you to hear this,” she told me. “I’ve kept it all these years and your story made me want to get it out again.”

I was so thrilled that she shared it with me. It brings tears to my eyes even now as I write about it. Such a lovely little treasure she has tucked away and even all these years later the sound of his softly accented voice fills her eyes with tears.

“What happened to him?” I asked. She shrugged. “I never saww him again.” That’s the thing with men who earn their livings at sea. You never know.

It was a precious gift for me to hear that tape and to know her story. When she left she took the tape with her saying, “Guess I’ll take this home and put it back in its hiding place.” I thanked her for sharing it with me.

“That’s a real good story,” she said as she left. Thank you.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Test of Sorrow

My blog entry on Friday seems to have touched a lot of people. I’ve received phone calls and emails from people who said they were sorry to read that I was feeling bad. That is very sweet of them but I hasten to assure them that I don’t think periods of sadness are a bad thing.

Oscar Wilde, writing from prison, wrote, “I now see that sorrow, being the supreme emotion of which man is capable, is the type and test of all great art.” Not all art originates in sorrow but the willingness to endure sorrow and see where it carries you is indispensable to creativity. This is not always an easy awareness to live with but it is important and it is, ultimately, a test of our humanity.

We live at a time and in a culture where people go to terrible extremes to avoid dealing with bad feelings. Drinking, drugs and all the many addictions from sex to shopping to hours in front of the television or cruising the internet for diversion is ubiquitous. We can’t bear facing the things in ourselves that sometimes have the most to teach us. Denial and diversion are keep us from looking at our lives and our society. I realize that much of the reason for this is a sense of helplessness we all live with. Government has gotten so big and the world has gotten both larger and closer. The feeling of being trapped on a carousel that shows no sign of slowing down and every sign of pitching us off onto our heads leaves us feeling helpless and stuck.

Many years ago, when I was going through the usual young adult searching for a belief system that I liked, a spiritual guide told me something that has stayed with me and helped me on many occasions. He said, “It doesn’t matter which path you choose to walk. What matters is your commitment to walking that path.” A good reminder when things get rough. I’ve had a lot of bright ideas in my life. I’ve changed course several times, I’ve screwed up and made mistakes and backed myself into corners. But when things go awry — or just don’t go as well as I had hoped I remember that choosing to continue to walk my path, despite walking through a sorrowful patch, is not a bad thing and will ultimately turn into something worthwhile.

I have been going through a strange time with my fiction writing. One novel is out and I don’t have time to promote it. One novel is completed in preliminary form and I am not quite ready to get back to work on it. So I’ve gone back to working on short stories. I wrote one story this past week that I like and want to polish up and there is another one tickling the back of my brain. This is something that I am grateful for.

I find writing fiction difficult at times because there is so much emotion that goes into it. I don’t know if other writers experience this but I get really emotionally involved with my characters and sometimes that involvement gets tremendously hard to live with. But, when I see it through and then give the story to a trusted reader to get feedback on, I am gratified when they say how much they related to the story and tell me about the emotions it evoked in them. I guess you can’t create emotional intensity without being willing to feel it as you write.

So life goes on. All will be well but sometimes the path to well goes through some darkness. And, as Wilde said, sorrow is our supreme emotion — it teaches us what we are capable of and takes us where we need to go.

Thanks for reading.