Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Reflections on Salem

When I moved to Massachusetts in the late 80s I lived on Lafayette Street in Salem for awhile. I loved living in Salem with its rich history. I'd spend hours and hours walking around the streets surrounding the Common and Derby Wharf. It was the history I loved, particularly the literary history. The House of the Seven Gables soon became the focal point of my fascinations and I spent many hours in the garden there reading Hawthorne and reveling in the sheer gorgeousness of the trees overhanging the harbor as autumn approached.

I knew about the Salem Witch Trials and had noticed a number of witch-related businesses around town with witchy signs and trappings but it wasn't until mid-October that it dawned on me that something strange was going on here. Laurie Cabot's Crows Haven Corner was right down the street from the Peabody-Essex Museum and I'd stopped in there a couple of times but not having a big need for herbs and amulets I never bought much of anything. Actually I had met Laurie, the Official Witch of Salem, however under non-witchy circumstances.

I had a friend who had just completed her training as an Estee Lauder consultant and was working at the North Shore Mall. She invited me to stop by for a “makeover”, something I had severe trepidations about. But I went. So there I am perched on a stool, wrapped in a flowered drape and she scrapes my hair back and removes every vestige of makeup from my face. Then her phone rings. Great. So there I was wrapped in flowers, bare-faced and slathered in some gunk, sitting in the middle of the aisle for everyone to see when who should come strolling down the aisle but Laurie Cabot in her long black gown and long black hair. As she passed she looked at me and said, with a lovely smile, “Oh, you look just fabulous.” And off she went. My friend, who had just returned from her call, and I stared at her. “Well,” my friend said, “she's a witch. She knows how you are going to look.” OK.

But Salem, beautiful bewitching Salem on the harbor, turns into something of a circus as Halloween approaches. It's sort of amazing. People start arriving from all over the country. Big purple tour buses show up disgorging folks wearing black and backpacks who pile into Fatima's Psychic Studio and Crow's Haven Corner, and all the various witch museums. I remember sitting in Brother's Deli one Halloween morning with a couple of friends. We watched the lengthening queue outside Pyramid Books as we ate scrambled eggs and toast. “What do you suppose they come here for?” someone asked. “I don't know,” I said. “But I think I'll go home and wait a few days before going out again.”

Which is what I did. But as the weeks passed and the leaves fell and the frosts came I spent dusky evenings walking around downtown and wondering what it is that draws us to these places where something once happened. I can't explain my beliefs but I do believe that the end of October and the beginning of November hold a few mysterious days when the walls between the worlds grow thin and it is possible to hold very still and listen and slip into an awareness of other lives and other realities. It is not a thing that can be forced but it is a thing one can open oneself to.

The Salem Witch Trials have been written about endlessly and analyzed endlessly and the truth is, they had very little to do with anything metaphysical at all. But they serve as a reminder that when we close ourselves off to other possibilities we invite bad things into our lives. Insular thinking breeds intolerance, and intolerance breeds bigotry and demonization, and demonization breeds atrocity. In 1992 I attended the dedication of the Witch Trials Memorial in Salem and Elie Weisel was the speaker. He is someone I had long admired and I mostly went just to see him. When he arrived he stood a few feet from me until it was time for him to speak. He is a small man and I was pleased to see how healthy and well he looked. He spoke, as only he could, about intolerance. And he said the thing that none of us dare ever to forget, is that keeping silent in the face of evil is complicity with evil.

So it is Halloween and tonight the streets of Gloucester will be filled with little ghosts and princess and pirates and dragons begging for treats. And in the old cemetery behind my house all will be quiet. And in Salem heaven only knows what craziness will be going on. And all of that is fine. We all have our own ways and we need only accept that and let one another be.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Oh, Those Lovely Irish Lads

It is the time of year when snuggling up with some knitting and a good movie has much to recommend itself. Since I am madly knitting away on my Shawl of Falling Leaves and Shooting Stars in order to include it in the knitting book I have been spending a good bit of time in front of the television as I work. This thanks to two recent Netflix discoveries, a couple of Irish mini-series that sucked me in and kept me fascinated from beginning to end. I posted a couple days ago about Toby Stephens in Jane Eyre and I have rhapsodized here before about my appreciation for “beasts” --- those bad boys we love despite everything. Well, here are two more to add to the collection:

Liam Cunningham as Mossie Sheehan in Falling for A Dancer

Smolder? You want to talk about smolder? Mossie Sheehan is the quintessence of smoldering passion. His passion is directed toward Elizabeth, the 19 year old bride of his older cousin and neighbor Neely Scollard with whom, surprise, surprise, he has a long-standing feud. Poor Elizabeth has gotten herself in to this unwanted marriage because the little minx went and got herself knocked up by a good-for-nothing actor and in 1930s Ireland the choice was Magdalene Laundry or marry someone far way. The thing is despite his inappropriateness as a groom, Neely has four young children and Elizabeth is a sweet and loving girl. Even if she doesn't love Neely she soon grows to deeply love his children and her own when it is born.

As for Mossie, well, he's younger, he's strong, he's single and he can't stop looking at her. I mean he REALLY can't stop looking at her. One of those naughty YouTube video artists created this little compilation from the series and it works fine for me. The series has stunning cinematography and I don't know why this is in black and white but it works just fine.

So there is a teaser for Mossie Sheehan to warm your cold and blustery winter evenings.

Daniel Payne as Ned Andrews in Random Passage

This 2002 Canadian miniseries is 6 hours long and I swear I loved every minute of it. Filmed in Newfoundland, the set they built for it is now a living history site where you can go and learn more about the days of cod fishing in Canada. Set in the early 1800s the story is about a group of Irish immigrants who are forced to put in to Cape Random as winter sets in. It is a small fishing station of six people and the newcomers are most unwelcome. They are all crowded, freezing and starving but their dark evenings are brightened as much as they can be by the entertaining Ned Andrews, a tall, good-natured, red-haired fellow who sings in a lovely voice, plays the penny whistle and tells wonderful stories. Of course, it is also Ned's fault that they are there in the first place because he cheated his employer and got his family kicked out of Ireland.

The first segment is a little confusing because so many stories are being set up at the same time but eventually they all converge and things get really interesting. In the first episode, when the immigrants and the residents of Cape Random are struggling to survive it reminded me a lot of the opening chapters of Joe Garland's wonderful Lone Voyager, about Gloucester seaman Howard Blackburn. The scenes of the immigrants struggling to survive by hunting seals, hauling cod from the sea and salting and drying them on fish flakes could have been set in Gloucester as easily as Newfoundland.

And through it all there is the red-haired Ned, tall and smiling and filled with stories and songs. The role was ably played by Irish musician Daniel Payne and he is irresistible in the part. How can you not love a man with hair that color? There are a number of other interesting men in the series --- all little-known actors except for Colm Meaney whom I only remembered as Chief Miles O'Brien in Star Trek. He is fascinating as a tough man with a secret that prevents him from returning the love of a woman who loves him. A fine tale for a cold winter's night --- in fact, several of them.

Thanks for reading and happy watching.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Painting the Empty Bowls

In 1990 a high school teacher came up with the idea of a fund-raiser that involved painting ceramic bowls and then serving people a simple meal of soup and bread and letting them keep the bowls as a reminder of hunger in the world. Thus began the Empty Bowl Project. Each year here in Gloucester we have an Empty Bowl Fund-raising event to benefit the local food pantry. For a few years now I have been invited to participate in the painting of the bowls that are used in that event. Yesterday was bowl painting day.

Gloucester has a lot of people who rely on the food pantry to keep from being hungry. Gloucester also has a lot of artists who are well recognized for their talents and many of those artists are endlessly generous when it comes to raising funds for all sorts of things --- community preservation projects, arts groups, and, of course, feeding the hungry. Yesterday, the painting party was held at the home and studio of Veronica Morgan. One of Gloucester's many talented artists. Her sister, Marty, is a potter and has been extremely generous in supporting the project by firing the bowls, too.

When I arrived at Veronica's there were a number of artists already at work. My dear, long-time friend Trudy Allen was painting away with NSAA artist Carole Loicano. We were joined soon by Judy Robinson-Cox, a photographer and painter I know well from endless seARTS meetings. Throughout the day other artists arrived. Betty Lou Schlemm, my watercolor teacher of a good many years, arrived. While she painted she was telling us about going to see “Harold and Maude” at Theatre in the Pines the night before. I wanted to get there --- I designed the posters for it. Judy was talking about Ocean Alliance's spectacular art show and opening at the Paint Factory which she helped organize and is participating in. Susan Erony came a bit late. She was tired from her lecture the night before on the WPA Murals at City Hall. I designed the posters for that, too. Everyone was excited about the unveiling of the renovated tower on City Hall. The scaffolding is coming down and it is beautiful!

Artist Anna Coniaris Comolli joined our table. She had an idea for the next seARTS Partner With an Artist event. Veronica was there at the forum the night it opened. Other artists arrived talking about other events and projects and all the endless things we are always trying to raise money for. All of us are worried about our own ability to survive as the economy deteriorates. It was good to be among people who are so filled with energy and talent and a passion for the arts and for our community. It made me feel proud to be among them.

This is the thing --- there is a lot to do in this world. We have to feed the hungry. We want to restore our beautiful City Hall and save historic old icons like the Paint Factory. We want art to blossom and grow in Gloucester. We want the world to know we are here and what we are creating and how much this place means to us. There is a film festival going on at Gloucester Stage Company this month. Rocky Neck Art Colony is committed to supporting the Paint Factory. A lot of businesses around town have recognized that the arts bring people here --- people who patronize them. Mark Teiwes's photo exhibit is still up at Captain Joe's. He has another one online of the Paint Factory. Capt. Joe has one too on his amazing blog. There is so much to do but there are a lot of us who really want to do it.

Nobody needs me to spout doom and gloom about our economic challenges but, if anything, it makes a lot of us realize how important it is that we stay focused on what is important. I've been fed up with our entire culture of consumption and mindless entertainment for years. I hope, as people have to conserve those dollars wasted on mindless drivel, they will find new ways to occupy their time in helping others within their community. Raise money, feed the hungry, clean up parks and beaches, restore old buildings, paint bowls. The time of selfish self-gratification is past and good riddance. But life goes on and there is plenty of life going on in a town like ours. Let's all pitch in together and help out.

I painted six bowls yesterday. I painted mermaids and fish and turtles. It was just wonderful to do that while listening to all these amazing people chatter about the other projects they are working on. We can all be amazing if we want to be. I hope they will ask me back to paint more bowls --- it's a gift.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Seduction of Jane Eyre

I just came across this video on You Tube and all I can say is --- whew!

I love this particular version of Jane Eyre that appeared on Masterpiece Theater a few years ago. I even bought the DVD but, good golly Miss Molly, this is AMAZING.

It's a cold, rainy and windy day here in Gloucester but that certainly warmed things up!!! And now I find it has a companion video, "The Temptation of Edward Rochester":

Thanks for watching!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Latest Additions to The Mermaid Shawl Knitting Book

If you purchased Kathleen Valentine's novel The Old Mermaid's Tale and would like a copy of the Mermaid Shawl section of the book in PDF format, please email:

was a perfect autumn day here in Gloucester and, since I had been invited to my friend Connie's house, I took advantage of the beauty of the day, the great view of Thacher's Island from her deck, and her willingness to act as model, to photograph three new additions to the knitting book I am working on. The book is really coming along well. I've made a lot of charts and diagrams and am
photographing work that explains the techniques. I had three new pieces that fit perfectly in the third chapter --- Rectangular Scarves and Stoles --- and was eager to get photos for the book so today was the day.

The first is a gorgeous long, cozy stole in a merino wool from Knitpicks. The color is called "Pool" and the pattern is a stylized Tulip so I am calling it the Blue Tulip Stole. That's Connie at left wrapped up in it. Isn't she a great model?

The second one is an absolutely scrumptious rectangular stole in Knit Pick's luscious alpaca-silk. It is the softest yarn but with a lovely weight to it that makes it drape around the figure. The pattern is a curious little lace variation on tumbling blocks. I haven't really thought of a name for it yet so am just calling it Rose Alpaca-Silk Wrap.

This next one is a fun piece that was made from odds and ends leftover from other projects. I keep leftovers in zip-lock bags sorted according to color. That way, when I want to do something fun and funky, I can mix and match treasures from my leftovers bags and see what happens. This scarf, which I call Scrap Bag Scarf, is nothing more than row after row of Old Shale but the yarns changes every 4 or 6 rows. I didn't concern myself with weight, fiber or texture --- just as long as everything was a shade or rose or violet.

I also want to thank Marge Kenney for acting as my art director on the shoot. She made sure everything was just perfect.

And, finally, Rebecca sent me some photos of her in the second Mermaid Shawl I made. This one was knit specifically for the KAL in 2006. When it was finished I gave the shawl to Rebecca and she wears it a lot which makes me very happy. I had asked her if she would take a picture wearing the shawl so I'd have it for the book and she sent this one which I just love. It was shot by her boyfriend David in his boatyard. David is an artist and a boat-builder, too.

So the book is progressing and I hope will be ready before too long. I spent the better part of the day yesterday trying to draw a diagram of the "Tricky Beginning" of the Mermaid Shawl until I realized that I had made a mistake in the original drafting of the instructions. No wonder people had problems with it! So I re-knit and re-photographed the beginning and it makes much more sense now. One thing I have discovered is that the best way to learn how to do something is to try to explain to someone else how to do it. Amazing how that works!

So, again, I want to thank Connie and Rebecca for helping with this. I think they look just beautiful and add tremendously to the book. You can see more photographs at Okay, back to work!

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sex In A Cold Climate

On a message board I am fond of there is a discussion going on about strange places to have sex. This was prompted by a post someone made about places that people once thought it was fun to have sex but now, as we age and become more paranoid about various dangers, have second thoughts about. It's been pretty entertaining to read the responses, especially since I know a good many of the responders are approaching senescence at a pace that is too fast for comfort but, what the hell, we all have our memories.

When I was young (back in the Dark Ages), and the product of 12 years of Catholic education, I thought that sex was something you did after you were married --- the nuns did a good job. In fact, I remember a hilarious incident (well, it seems hilarious in retrospect) in which a few of us at the innocent age of 16 were talking about a girl we know who had “gotten in trouble”. One of my friends said (with utter horror), “They say she doesn't even know who the father is!” We were all speechless --- probably because we didn't know what she was implying --- until our friend Sharon said, “Well, that's easy.” “How?” we all wanted to know. “Well,” she said, “she must be secretly married --- they have to find out who her husband is.” Oh.

It seems kind of astonishing now to realize that at 16 some of us thought you couldn't actually have sex unless you were married. Like, along with the wedding ring, you got the key to the chastity belt. But, lucky for us, we mostly wised up within a few years and either got married or proceeded merrily down the road to assorted misbehaviors and sins. I think it was Robin Williams who once said that women need a reason to have sex, while all men need is a place. Let me tell you, finding a place has not always been easy.

On the message board discussion a lot of folks have been talking about cemeteries. Well, yeah, I did my share of that. In fact one of my most memorable experiences (when I tell you the story you'll know how long ago it was) took place in a cemetery. My boyfriend and I were parked in a cemetery and were having a wonderful time except for the fact that we couldn't get anything on the radio except static. A fact that was aggravating him. But youth being what it is, physical demands trumped aesthetic ones, and things proceeded as they usually do. Anyhow, by some strange voodoo, just as we were approaching that magic moment, the radio kicked in and Jim Morrison's sultry voice singing “Riders on the Storm” carried us home, so to speak. When the song (and we) ended, the radio reception crapped out again. The next day he called me, in shock, and reported that the previous night Jim Morrison had died in a hotel room in Paris. Brrr.

I suppose one could write one's autobiography in places one has had sex but I'm not at all sure they would be particularly unique. I've never done it on an airplane, in a nightclub, or a movie theater (as mentioned in the article on the message board) but I have a few intriguing memories. There was a moonlit night on the top of the Bolivar Ferry crossing the channel from Galveston with dolphins cavorting in the waves --- that was with the Australian I mentioned in an earlier post about the destruction of The Balinese Room by Hurricane Ike. And there was an unforgettable night on Playa Luperone in the Dominican Republic... sigh.

And the scene I wrote in The Old Mermaid's Tale in which Clair and Baptiste do it at the top of a lighthouse was based on first-hand knowledge (so to speak --- have you ever noticed how hard it is to talk about sex without seeming to be loading every sentence with puns?) I might have missed out on nightclubs and movie theaters but not church. And that's all I'm going to say about that (well, actually “those” --- it was more than once, or twice).

But my favorite memory was an unseasonably warm winter night not all that long ago. It was his birthday and we had just come back from having dinner in a Revolutionary War era tavern and were in a very romantic mood. He had never been to Hammond Castle so we drove down to take a look and it was beautiful and warm and mysterious. No one was around and the flash of light from Eastern Point Lighthouse was illuminating the fog. And there we were on the drawbridge.

Ah, memories!

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Combining Two Loves

Other than a few outings to participate in Gloucester's wonderful PWA and Block Party activities this weekend I spent most of it right here working on the knitting book. It is coming along nicely and I realize that there is a double delight in this because it combines two great loves --- knitting and writing. As I am working on the book I realize that what I really want to teach people here is how to knit-for-themselves --- like thinking for themselves. I want to offer techniques, tips, guidelines, layouts, etc. I'm even adding charts and instructions (sort of). But what I really hope will come of this is for people to read it and get ideas about how they can make something totally unique and amazing that is their own design and creation. I don't really want to see my designs on Ravelry (not that I don't love Ravelry) showing umpteen versions that people have made of it. I want them to make their own creation.

One of the issues I deal with all the time when I start a long scarf or stole is “do I have enough yarn?” My solution to this has been to knit the edge lace, bind it off and put it aside. Then knit a second one and begin the main part of the piece. I knit until I'm nearly out of yarn not worrying about whether I will have enough to finish because the finishing is already done. It is just waiting to be knit or sewn on to the finished piece.

Another friend mentioned the pieces I have made by knitting on the bias. So I decided to add a section on knitting on the bias. Last year I knit a beautiful shawl for my godmother but knitting a bias center panel and then picking up around the edges and adding a lacy border. So yesterday I spent the better part of the day explaining how that was done.

One of the things I have noticed as I write is that it is also making more hyper-aware of my knitting. When I pick up a piece to work on it I am now thinking “how would I explain this?” It is really quite fascinating.

When the book is finished and off to press I have another project in mind --- a knitters gathering that I am calling Knit Your Tail Off. That's my logo at left. There used to be an open-mike storytelling night here in town called LieYerAssOff so I am taking that as my inspiration. I'm working on ideas for KnitYourTailOff and will keep you posted.

has been just glorious so far and working on this book while taking time out to participate in activities for the community I love has been healing and nurturing. When I was in school we had Benedictine nuns and priests and their motto was from the words of St. Benedict, Ora et Labore --- Pray and Work. For me writing has always been a form of praying and I can remember Sister Claudia telling me, when she was trying to teach me to hem properly, “every stitch is a prayer.” So I keep working at the book bearing those thoughts in mind. Ora et Labore --- it heals the soul.

On a slightly different not I want to mention the blog and book of a woman I met at Captain Joe's on Saturday. Her name is Wendy Murray and she has just published a book about Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi. Since St. Clare of Assisi was an inspiration while I was writing The Old Mermaid's Tale, I am looking forward to reading her book, I ordered it last night from Amazon. I notice she also has Mark Teiwes's beautiful photography on her site. If we all work to promote one another, how can we help but succeed?

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 06, 2008

How To Explain...

I spent the better part of the weekend right here in this chair bent over the computer working on the knitting book. When I wasn't sitting at the computer I was working on a bit of knitting trying to take something step-by-step in order to explain it. I remember when Mark was working on his book he said that, even though he worked on his lobster boat every day, when it came time to sit down and write what he did, he had no idea how to explain it. He would drive down to Pirates Lane, row out to his boat, and do what he did a hundred times every single day but watch the process step-by-step. He said he had no idea how many steps went in to hauling the traps on board, cleaning them out, re-baiting them and setting them back.

Knitting is a world away from lobster-fishing but I am going through the same thing. Even though I have been writing things down and photographing my work as I go along, there is still so much to explain.

The book has grown --- I knew it would. I want to do something a little different with this book. It is more about knitting theory than just an instruction book. I want to encourage people to be creative with patterns and fibers, to experiment, and, above all, to have fun. So, rather than give hard-and-fast directions, I want to tell you what the thinking was behind these creations, too. The directions will be there of course, but with lots of room for each individual knitter's creativity.

Back when I was in the corporate world I worked for several years for a fiber optics manufacturer. One of my jobs was to illustrate fiber optic components for catalogs and proposals. Yesterday, while working on the book, I realized I needed to do the same thing for the shawls. So I spent the better part of the day drawing diagrams and making illustrations like I did for fiber optic components but this time for shawls. It was quite a learning experience! I hadn't realized that I thought like an engineer when I was plotting a shawl.

I made four diagrams --- one for center-seamed, triangular shawls; one for rectangular shawls that have a center lace panel and then three lace sections knit around the perimeter; one for a long rectangular shawl with lace borders; and one for constructing a cocoon from a rectangular lace shawl. It was actually fascinating to do. I learned stuff even after all these years of designing knitted shawls. When I showed the diagrams to my friend Maureen she got very excited. Maureen is a crocheter and sometimes feels a little left out of our group of knitters. But, she said, after looking at my diagrams, she understood how to duplicate the general effect in crochet. She could use her own lace patterns with my diagrams.

As I sort though the pictures of my work I have taken over the last several years, I am realizing how much I have learned and how much I want to pass on in the book. This is exciting. All these years I've resisted writing a knitting book because I thought my combined handicaps of knitting with my yarn in my left hand, not being able to read written-out instructions, and being a large-sized knitter were prohibitive to the usefulness of such a project but, as I work on it, I realize it has given me a different perspective that might be useful to others.

Right now the book has five sections: My Knitting Autobiography & Process; The Mermaid Shawl; Emily's Shawl (left); Scarves, Stoles & Wraps; and The Cocoon. I am considering adding a section on Knitting on the Bias. I have a ways to go, but it is quite an adventure. I am approaching it like I used to approach instruction manuals for fiber optic systems --- only with knitting. Cool.

I also finished my breathtaking lace shrug, too. It is GORGEOUS! I knit it with a double strand of laceweight cashmere/silk in the most beautiful shade of yellow. I even found three exquisite Czech glass buttons to finish it. I was looking at all the photos I have of my lace bedjackets and thought that might be my next knitting book adventure --- Lace Bedjackets & Shrugs. In the future ---way, way in the future.

Thanks for reading.