Monday, December 24, 2012

Lessons from The Long Winter

For Christmas, a passage from one of my favorite American storytellers:

"There's nothing like good hot bean soup on a cold day," said Pa. He looked down at Grace, pulling at his hand. "Well, Blue-Eyes, what do you want?"

"A tory," Grace said.

"Tell us the one about Grandpa and the pig and the sled," Carrie begged. So, taking Grace and Carrie on his knees, Pa began again the stories that he used to tell Mary and Laura in the Big Woods when they were little girls. Ma and Mary knitted busily, in quilt-covered rockers drawn close to the oven, and Laura stood wrapped in her shawl, between the stove and the wall.

The cold crept in from the corners of the shanty, closer and closer to the stove. Icy-cold breeze sucked and fluttered the curtains around the beds. The little shanty quivered in the storm. But the steamy smell of boiling beans was good and it seemed to make the air warmer.

At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove. They all drank cups of strong, hot tea. Ma even gave Grace a cup of cambric tea. Cambric tea was hot water and milk, with only a taste of tea in it, but little girls felt grown-up when their mothers let them drink cambric tea." - from the "October Blizzard" chapter of Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter.

Storytime. Hearty soup and hot tea. The smell and warmth of a fire. These are some of my favorite simple delights in winter that Laura describes. What are yours? I thought of this passage when this past cold December weekend I savored a bowl of homemade vegetable soup my mother made like her mother used to make. I dreamt of days indoors with a pot of tea, the candles on, entertained by a story. I know many people don't enjoy winter, but I love it, as I enjoy all four seasons.

What strikes me about Laura's books are the universal appeal of what she delights in as a girl on the prairie, and how they are as relevant in 2012 as they were in the 1880s setting The Long Winter takes place during. Television is filled with commercials this time of year with fare like a mother getting satisfaction over giving her kids some footware (made in China, I'd guess) or two young boys trying to convince their parents to get some fancy gizmo (next scene: the parents are playing with the device themselves). I'd rather live in the Laura world of simple pleasures. I feel like this maddening retail push for Christmas earlier and earlier has sucked at times the joy out of the season for me.

The past few years I've been participating in a local library's annual holiday program to buy a clothing item for an anonymous resident in need. I picked a card from 10-year-old girl off of the tree who wanted a winter coat. Along with the coat and a scarf/hat/glove set, I packed a copy of The Long Winter from my local book shop, with a nifty kitten bookmark (I love a fun bookmark, don't you?) I hope she likes it. I loved the book, which I read recently for the first time. The "Little House" series also puts into perspective my own perceived struggles. When I think about not wanting to eat leftovers another day, I remember the Ingalls family surviving on brown bread for months. When I turn up the thermometer, I'm grateful I don't have to spend my days twisting wheat to burn for fuel.

On my way to the bus from New Jersey into New York City, I often pass a man in his 30s or 40s, who is walking slowly and looking down at his device. I've never seen him without it. Laura's description of the prairie reminds me to look around the world regularly. I hope our society stops and looks around more often, and it's a little depressing seeing the number of young children gazing down at phones and gadgets and not looking at the world. One of my favorite things to do when looking out from the 11th floor of my New York City office building: watching the birds in flight, in a sort of ballet in the sky, or those perched high in snug nests, far from the harried life below passing by them. I wonder what the birds think of us?

"Winter is the season of the imagination more than any other for me. Landscapes are magically transformed by snow," the sonic storyteller Sting tells us in an interview promoting his album, If on a Winter's Night.

Of the song Soul Cake he says, "Souls cakes were there to appease ghosts of the past...It kind of ties in with the record of treating the spirits of the past so that you can move forward." I like that idea too.

Winter, he says, is " a dark time. It's a cold time. It's also a time of warmth and family and love and tenderness." After the news events as of late, what could be more important? Happy Christmas and season's greetings to you all.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

September, October and November Storytellers: Three Months of Books

If it were not for the escape of a good book, you would surely find your blogger on a You Tube video, "Commuter Meltdown at Port Authority." If you're familiar with the R.E.M. video for Everybody Hurts where everyone's stuck in a traffic jam, sad looking faces, watching life pass by them, that will paint the picture what the commute has been like ever since our East Coast storm. A man muttered, "Welcome to the new America, folks" after another day of long lines. Holiday music pipes in mockingly with songs like "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," when it doesn't feel like that way at all.  When I get home from my cubicle job which involves being on a computer for eight hours a day, I look at my home computer with a sense of dread.

I've been doing something I hadn't been doing a lot of: turning on the television. The other night "You've Got Mail" with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks came on, a film I'll never tire of. It's such a love letter to New York City (which the film reminds me is so enchanting except in places like Port Authority), to the art of letter writing, to books and storytellers. I love how letters document books read (Meg Ryan's character speaks of her love of Pride and Prejudice) and just everyday life, like a butterfly getting on a subway stop and getting off on another.

A book of letters started my storytellers (some mentioned in a prior post but worth revisiting).
West from Home, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, $3.98, Better World Books. A collection of Laura's letters to husband Almanzo while visiting daughter Rose in San Francisco where the Pan-Pacific International Exhibition was held in 1915. This is like reading someone's diary. Imagine if you penned letters to your loved ones and they were published decades letter. I've read that Martha Washington burned 41 years of correspondence with George Washington after his death to keep their private life safe. Laura's letters don't reveal any deep dark secrets, but do have some interesting tidbits - who knew they once spoke of moving to New Zealand before moving to Florida? There's quite an awkward letter from daughter Rose to her father that her mother, "Mamma Bess" is "growing fat" from all the food at the fair. I started this on the plane ride to San Francisco and wouldn't have visited the enchanting Palace of the Fine Arts (built for the exhibition) if I hadn't.

What would Mitt Romney's journal say? I read that he kept one during the campaign. A journal is my next storyteller, Seeds of Hope: The California Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, by Kristiana Gregory, part of the Dear America series, $3.98, Better World Books. I can't believe I never came across any of the Dear America books until I searched for gold rush diaries in preparation of my trip.

I've heard my favorite historian David McCullough talk about drawing people into history through good storytelling, and these fictional books are a wonderful way to do that with historical notes at the end. In the notes of this storyteller is the song Clementine. I never knew this was a folk song about the Gold Rush since I only vaguely knew the chorus and not the rest of the song:

"In a cavern, in a canyon
Excavating for a mine,
Dwelt a miner, Forty-niner,
And his darling Clementine"

I now understand the significance of 1849 and the mass migration to California in search of riches. Books read are mentioned in entries here, like Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Last Days of Pompeii, Jane Eyre, and A Christmas Carol, about "a rich man with no friends" which would foreshadow events to come in this travel diary of a young girl in Sutter's Fort.

A Columbia Diary, the real life diary of Clementine Brainard, $4.95, from a historical themed bookstore in Columbia, California. She talks of everything from making squash pies and doing the washing to fire and duels, which according to the footnotes, California saw more duels with guns than any other state in the union, including the South.  She mentions going to the "lyceum." The footnotes tell us, "The Lyceum Movement in the United States was an early form of organized adult education based on Aristotle's Lyceum in Ancient Greece. Lyceums flourished in the mid-19th century particularly in the northeastern and midwestern United States. Columbia's Lyceum met once every week for lively discussions on various topics."

I love this idea of adult education. In a society whose politicians always talk of "education" I don't think we value it enough really. Reading is yes an escape from soul sucking lines at bus terminals but also part of continuing education for me.

Some storytellers just magically find you. After reading an announcement in the local paper about the library in Hawthorne, New Jersey's fill a bag of books for $3 sale, I stopped by after work. I walked like there was a magnetic force to these two books: 

Time Stops for No Mouse by Michael Hoeye  and...

The Sands of Time, by Michael Hoeye.

I soon picked up No Time Like Show Time for about $4 from Better World Books.

In short, these books are about a watchmaker mouse, Hermux Tantamoq and his adventures with aviatrix Linka Perflinger in the jungle, the desert, then theater. Add to the equation his eccentric neighbor, the cosmetics tycoon Tucka Mertslin and his pet lady bug Terfle. But the long answer is these books are about so much more. My mind was racing with topics like revisionist history (where did I read the winners write the history?), what defines art, and the societal obsession with anti-aging and the big business behind the beauty industry. I thought of this book when I saw a Today Show segment about some institute declaring green would be the color of the year next year and that we should all be wearing green clothes, wearing green Swatch watches, buying green furniture and so on. I ponder a lot the mob mentality in our society and the factors of why people follow "trends" or celebrities. I wish people would be more questioning of where the items the "celebrity" or "designer" brands are made (often China and anywhere but the United States).

These are some of my favorite storytellers of the year. I actually want to write the author a fan letter. Hermux writes gratitude letters to the universe. He often gives thanks for the good and the bad, the beautiful and the mysterious. He writes in one,

"Thank you for maps and compasses. Thank you for winding rivers and crashing waterfalls. For empty canyons and rising moons. For campfires and carrots. And for some time to get to know Linka better.

By the way, thank you for time in general. I wonder what time is exactly and where it comes from. I've never considered it before. And where does it go? I wonder how much time I have. Have I spent it wisely? Or have I wasted it?"

I think about that too. I waste a lot of time on the computer (mostly surfing) and not turning it on is part of resisting that temptation, but I still enjoy gathering and sharing my thoughts here, even if it's on a less regular basis.

I think my gratitude letter for this weekend would be,

"Thank you for books. Always for books. Thank you for lunches of potato leek soup at the farm and for butternut squash casseroles at Tea and Sympathy. Thank you for farms in general for there would be no potato leek soup or casseroles without them. Thank you for friendship - in two legged form or four. Thank you for letters, and for cold, rainy nights indoors. Thank you for a fictional mouse for reminding me to give thanks, and for long lines at Port Authority, which means more time lost in the pleasure of a good book."

What would your gratitude letter say? What storytellers are you grateful for? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments sections, or write a private letter to the universe today.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Monet's Garden: A Piece of Giverny in New York

"scratching the packed earth
in the abandoned garden
I rake and dig and hope
urban creatures hear me
and they watch and wait
scoffing or aloof or shy
but then while I sleep
the scent of lavender roots
calls each of them to visit
and to imagine a garden
and in the early morning
songs emerge from memory." - Urban Garden from J.J. Brown's Natural Supernatural Love Poems.

My garden is getting ready for a winter slumber. Time spent in it is less and less, darkness and cold being my enemies. I have no power over these forces. Spring seems like light years away, but with the way time is traveling lately, will be here in a wink of an eye.

I think of the songs that emerge from memory from the smells - honeysuckle brings back carefree summer nights from childhood, or lily of the valley which still grows abundantly in the backyard of my childhood home. Sometimes it is just sights - marigolds the color of the sun reminds me of my mother's garden, or snow drops heralding soon-to-be spring. Red or pink geraniums will always bring me back to visits to my grandmother's home in Switzerland.

Gardens have been in my life a lot this past year or two - finding the artwork of Georgia O'Keeffe, reading Julie Andrews Edwards' magnificent Mandy about a young girl finding a secret garden, Tori Amos' poetic song Datura, our wedding reception on our patio next to our garden, the gardens I explored on my honeymoon in California. The more gardens are in my life, the better I am for it.

I had the great pleasure of attending the Monet's Garden exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden on its very last day with my mother, who has planted the seed in me, pun intended, to love flowers. It was a splendid October Sunday, as happy a way to pass the time that I can imagine. 

"In the garden suspended in time,
my mother sits in a redwood chair;
light fills the sky,
the folds of her dress,
the roses tangled beside her." - Mark Strand, as quoted in the book Rose Garden Memories

Charlotte in Giverny. Perhaps this book will plant a seed in its readers. I wish I had learned about art in my public education. I had a French teacher who took us to an Henri Matisse exhibit in New York City when I was a teenager, but I was never taught anything about art. Did you have a teacher, at school or at home, who taught you about art?

"Half the interest of a garden is in the constant exercise of the imagination" - Mrs. C.W. Earle, as quoted in the book Rose Garden Memories.

"although you must leave
stay with me a moment
in this rose garden
so the fragrance of your skin
may linger in my hair
as I slowly wash our teacups" - Visitor and the Teacup, J.J. Brown, Natural Supernatural Love Poems

The water lilies here are a new song that the heart remembers happily. I can understand why Monet became obsessed with them after seeing them at the World's Fair in Paris in 1889.

"I do what I can to express what I feel in the presence of nature." - Claude Monet.

"Dividing Canaan. Piece by piece." - Datura, Tori Amos

"By the first of July all of Mandy's plants were in full bloom. The garden was a mass of color and she was beside herself with delight. It was a small miracle. She was kept busy with a lot of weeding, for not only the flowers thrived, but everything else as well. But it was worth it. The roses were blooming around the door. The nasturtiums were bursting all over the front flower beds, seeming to have no sense of direction and growing in a wonderfully untidy way, the curling stems hiding and twisting beneath the big leaves. Their flowers were mostly a bright orange or yellow with an occasional mahogany red bloom. And they have a coarse, tangy fragrance - an unforgettable scent." -  Mandy, by Julie Andrews Edwards

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

These Were My California Storytellers

"Western time now," Laura Ingalls Wilder noted in her letter to husband Almanzo when changing time zones on her train route from her home in Missouri as she documented the journey to visit daughter Rose in San Francisco where the Pan-Pacific International Exhibition was held in 1915. Laura's collection of letters was published in West from Home. Western time it did feel like as well on out honeymoon trip to California. Not just a change in hours but a change in pace, attitude, historical backgrounds shaping our identities and social differences.

Laura, whose Little House series was yet to come, struggled with how often she used the word beautiful in her letters to describe what she saw. Beautiful was a word that I would think of often. During her visit, the city was transformed from the 1906 earthquake and resulting fires that would destroy much of a city that seemed built overnight by the gold rush. Still, there were haunts of the past. Margot Patterson Doss writes in the introduction, "There were occasional vacant lots enclosed by wrought iron fences. In some were marble steps, leading up into thin air. Inez Irwin described them as "a little like meeting a ghost in a crowded street." I felt like I met a lot of ghosts here too.

Natalie Merchant, the upstate New York singer songwriter. Gold Rush Brides, her song with 10,000 Maniacs was with me, but I thought of her observations in "San Andreas Fault," from her first solo album Tigerlily in the context of the dreams the West offered but Mother Nature's harsh realities. I thought of San Francisco, a city built by the riches of gold, destroyed by fire, elemental forces at play.

"San Andreas Fault moved its fingers through the ground.
Earth divided, plates collided, such an awful sound.
San Andreas fault moved its fingers through the ground.
Terra cotta shattered, and the walls came tumbling down.
Oh promise land, what a wicked ground.
Build a dream, tear it down."

With our poorly battered East Coast still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, the duality of nature - its awe-inspiring, nurturing, giving side and its vengeful side - is on my mind. Steve and I lost an old oak tree, but consider ourselves lucky. Still, I think of how the Earth gives, but the Earth takes away.

Naturalist, conservationist, environmentalist, author, an American treasure, the great John Muir, who I knew far too little about until watching Ken Burns' extraordinary series on the National Parks: America's Best Idea, said,

"I only went out for a walk,
and finally concluded to stay out till sundown,
for going out, I found, was really going in."

Much about this trip was indeed about going out, and going in. Going out in Muir Woods not far from the city limits of San Francisco.

The first caretakers, a sign here in Yosemite National Park reminds me .While on this trip, the first presidential and vice presidential debate were held. The environment hasn't gotten a lot of attention, although I'll never understand why clean air, water and soil would ever take a back burner. Where our resources are concerned, I just hear a lot about taking. I liked a quote I read from Robert Redford in a book, "Yosemite Meditations,"

"I think the environment should be put in the category of national security. Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad. Otherwise, what is there to defend?"

Seeds of Hope: The California Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, by Kristiana Gregory, part of the Dear America series. While this diary was fictional, it gave a fascinating context of true events. Susanna talks of a bear and bull fight at the camps, fights which did take place. An interesting story in the historical notes section,

"The bull and bear fights that took place in early California provided jargon for Wall Street that is still used today. When the animals were brought into the ring, the bear was tethered to a chain. It would dig a hole several inches deep and lie down. From this hole, it would fight, either in prone or sitting position. The bull would stand. Thus, in America's financial centers, a bull market means stocks are going up, and a bear market means stocks are going down." 

At the local bookshop in the gold rush town of Columbia, I picked up A Columbia Diary, the real life diary of Clementine Brainard. I've read a few fictional diaries but this is the first actual diary I read. Clementine wrote in the first entry on October 19, 1853 of her intentions to keep journey during her sea journey but didn't. I brought a diary with me and had romantic notions of keeping it during my trip, and alas was too exhausted to write in it. I consider my blog a bit of a diary, one I haven't felt like writing in as much lately.

Clementine writes, "Do I ever have any thoughts that are worth being transferred to paper? I must be a singular individual.if I do not."

I'm so glad Clementine documented her thoughts, even though yes it feel voyeuristic to read them. Spoiler here if you want to read it yourself.  She writes of her husband's frequent ill health, speaks often about mail deliveries but doesn't elaborate much about what's in the letters, talks often about her faith, and speaks matter-of-factly when talking about death (maybe unsurprisingly seeing how common early death was). She bears her first child with barely any mention before and after of this event. Clementine's husband dies at 30 years of age and she remarries and has six more children, four of whom die in infancy. Walking around an old cemetery in Columbia, one cannot help but think of the hard lives people led and the progresses we made in medical care.

Alice Waters, who founded a national movement for local foods. Julia Child's story has been in my life a lot the last year or two, but what about Alice? Steve and I are still talking about the meal we savored in Berkeley, California at the cafe of Chez Panisse. On many meals on our trip here, we felt like someone just went to their back garden and whipped us up a feast.

Some weren't allowed to tell their stories. Banned books are displayed here at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. Freedom of speech?

Always on road trips, unexpected storytellers find me, like favorite childhood storyteller Charles Schultz, who has a museum dedicated to him in Santa Rosa. At nearly 37 years of age, I still look forward each year to A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the soundtrack is one of my favorite holiday albums. The visit to the museum was my most charming stop, and how often can one go into a cafe and say with excitement, "One Peppermint Patty hot chocolate, please!" I'm sure somewhere Linus, this Halloween night, is waiting in a patch for the Great Pumpkin, and Mr. Schultz is smiling down on him.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Our Thrifty Wedding Behind Us, It's California, Here We Come

"You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round...The sky is round, and I have heard the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles for theirs is the same religions as ours...Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power  moves." - Black Elk (1863-1950), Oglala Sioux holy man.
I've been thinking a lot about Black Elk's words which I was reading while swaying back and forth in my rocking chair. My wedding is now officially filed into the "memories" drawer. Saturday afternoon, after a ceremony in Steve's church, we celebrated our union with about 30 loved ones in a garden party in the backyard of our home I shared news with you about many months ago. I thought about the circle of the full moon shining down on us this weekend, and of my rose gold wedding band, which has alternating circles and squares in it. I thought about the nest Steve and I are creating, for ours is the same as the birds, seeking shelter, love, and warmth. I'm so glad we got married at the start of fall, one of my favorite seasons which does indeed always come back again. Nothing like an apple in a fall, also a circle.

We were proud of our thrifty wedding. No loans were needed to pay for the event, no sleepless nights over big checks to write, no heavy burden on ourselves or our families. My mother and her neighbor did the flowers, my bouquet came from the fields of a a local farm (which they generously gave me and my sister for free), Steve's brother took the photos and his nephew did some videos, we played some music softly from satellite radio (neither of us are fans of loud music at events which so hinders conversation), we decorated with garden-themed finds from garage sales and thrift shops, and Steve, a chef, was proud to cook for his guests. We did hire a dishwasher (we're not that thrifty)! I did my own hair and makeup, and wore my dress from the Goodwill ($15!), sky blue shoes from an estate sale ($1), red earrings that reminded me of New Mexico ($8 from a thrift shop in NYC) and a  red silk painted orchid in my hair ($10) from a vendor at the Jazz Age Lawn Party.  Our favors were assorted seed packets which we hope our guests who took them will plant and watch them grow. The only thing I changed from my original plan was my outfit for the rehearsal dinner: I wore instead a yellow vintage blouse ($1, estate sale), white silk flower ($1, thrift shop), green skirt ($3, estate sale) and Hush Puppy shoes (just a few dollars, thrifted).

Many of guests generously gave to our honeymoon fund which we did instead of a registry. We are going to California, starting in San Francisco, off to Yosemite, the wine country, hopefully some gold rush towns. I'll be chasing the ghosts of beat poets and peace activists, John Muir (highly recommend Ken Burns'  national parks documentary to learn more), gold rush brides, Laura Ingalls Wilder (did you know a collection of her letters were published when she was at the world's fair in San Francisco in 1915?) I have the book with me for the trip, and it mentions the city during her time being surrounded by Sutro Forest, a great stand of eucalyptus trees planted by schoolchildren. I thought of the eucalyptus garland I had on my chair of my sweetheart table. A garland - another circle.

I'll be curious to see what ghosts seek me out on the trip, and nudge me to tell their stories. You know how much I do love a good story.

California, here I come!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

My Favorite Magicians at the Renaissance Faire

Do you like to play dress up? I do. Sometimes I want to be Peggy Oleson on Mad Men. Other times, it's hippie fare for thrifting on the weekends. Nature inspires me, and I love flowery prints and earth tones. When the mood strikes, I bring out my inner Laura Ingalls Wilder with calico prints. I love color above all else. Playing dress up is something as young girls we loved when we had a more innocent attitude towards fashion, before the media and marketers jaded us with body images we fret far too much about.

Two events I went to again this summer validated how much adults love to play dress up. One was the 1920s Jazz Age Lawn party on Governor's Island. View my photos from a past soiree here. Another was the Renaissance Faire in Sterling Forest, which we received complimentary tickets to from one of Steve's colleagues. I've never dressed up for the Faire. I had a thrifted black Free People dress which would have been perfect which I realized only after I got to the event. I love the freedom and festivity here of the costumes. We should dress up more often for fun, don't you think?

Costumes aside, we were entertained by merrymakers in the past, but this year, I had a different perspective. I was taken by the artistry and craftsmanship on display, perhaps because we live in such a mass production world. To me, these craftsmen and women are true magicians just as much as anyone on stage.

These were my favorite magic makers.

Those who turn delights from the garden into nourishing, pleasing-to-the-palate meals. My vegan "Nights in Tunisia" vegetables in couscous which I savored with (not pictured) mint ice tea.

Storytellers, of course. Signs for Wanted: Robin Hood posted in this forest tavern. I sipped on some mead (honey wine) pondering his whereabouts.

Those who entertain us with visions of the future, true or not. In one of my favorite storytellers of all time, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, Owen sees the date of his death on a tombstone during a school play. Imagine if a fortune teller would be able to tell you your end. Would you want to know?

Those who turn the 21st century woman into a maiden.

Those who create beautiful garlands. I loved the fragrant eucalyptus.

Those who create quality, artful fabrics. I believe in the power of dressing artfully and using your own imagination, not listening to someone else's vision for you.

Those who shine a light on the world. Ever notice how many candles are imports?

Those who make art out of commonplace items.  I purchased a small hummingbird looking glass for an extremely reasonable $10 and it sits on my night stand. We are so hard on ourselves when glancing at our reflections in the looking glass (I am too). Let's try not to do that to ourselves.

Those who create beautiful glass baubles in a rainbow of colors.

Those who repurpose the unexpected.

Those who make us believe in wishes. A wishing well here. Ponder your innermost wishes. If you had three wishes granted, consider what they would be.

Those that make us believe in romance. A kissing bridge invites those to share a kiss with their sweetheart.

Costumes, food and crafts aside, I think these events are what we all need - a fun escape. Hands up those tired of our tabloid media with "celebrities" famous for no talent, the bad economic news and world events. I'm glad the Renaissance Faire swept me away from all that. These types of events are what I consider a "healthy escape" - not about numbing our minds or putting others down. 

Now, I'm off for my bedtime stories (never too old for that, either), maybe from a sonic storyteller.

Friday, September 7, 2012

July and August Storytellers: Two Months of Books

One of my most favorite sonic storytellers, Tori Amos, talked in an interview about "the mythology of ancient Ireland whereby the poets do battle before the warriors do battle and if the poets are good then hopefully they intimidate the other side so much." Maybe poets should have done battle before the national conventions. We need more of the beauty and power of the word in our daily lives, don't you agree? I could listen to Amos tell stories in song form or other all day. She made my reading list, as did a chef, a scientist author/poet, a local historian and a famous frontier author and her daughter.  These were my storytellers for July and August.

 Tori Amos: Piece by Piece, by Ann Powers and Tori Amos, Shaw's Book Shop, Westwood, New Jersey, aprox. $20.

It's funny how books sit on your shelf and wait patiently for their turn.  I've owned this book almost since its release several years ago, but it found me only now. I could relate to Amos' desires to become a mom, although I've never had to endure any of the miscarriages she suffered before she produced her daughter Tash. I also thought of her mother's story about putting aside her own ambitions to follow her husband's path. As I prepare for a wedding in a Catholic church (I'm not Catholic) and have to tell the priest we intend to raise our children Catholic (can I say "intend") I'm struggling a bit with my own path.

The book about Amos is told in dialogue form with journalist Ann Powers with a host of Amos confidants chiming in this work very much about her journey and creative process instead of a traditional biography.

"The romantic myth of the artist says that you are the Source. I have no illusions about that. I think this goes back to my grandfather. That was his great gift to me. Native Americans don't believe they are the Source. They have access to the Source. Endless access.  But don't get confused.

I can have access, but so can a librarian..."

Song Canvas sections give some insight into her works. So many people know her as the Cornflake Girl singer, but to me she's so much more. Her song Garlands, from The Beekeeper album era that disappointingly didn't make the album but appears on an extra with the bonus album, reminds me of my author friend J.J. Brown's Vector: A Modern Love Story. Vector is an ill-fated love story of a young opera student Eva and an older man, Michael set in in New York City. I thought if they made a movie about it, Garlands, where two lovers are meeting in Washington Square Park to go see the Winged Painter in a museum uptown, would certainly appear.

"I'm off in flight towards another light. Rest. Youth."

I love that Amos finds inspiration in the skies of New Mexico. I find creativity in our office painted a sage green and decorated with Southwest fare, with a raspberry colored rocking chair and a book case filled with favorites.  I do declare that I believe my ghost will roam in the Southwest. Where do tap into your creativity?

She talked about her mother, a literature major who dropped out to become a minister's wife after Amos' father switch from pre-med giving her the "keys to the library." Her mother read her Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Browning, and William Faulkner. Amos feels she wouldn't have been a songwriter without this influence of her mother's texts and her father's theology. Who gave you the keys to the library?

I love the chapter "Corn Mother: Genealogies" the most in which she shares memories of her Cherokee grandfather and the wisdom he passes on. Her stories about an ancestor escaping the Trail of Tears is something out of a Hollywood movie. Powers shares here too a Cherokee story. Let's take it in:

"Selu, the Corn Mother, lives with her grandsons in the mountains. The young men are hunters, and Corn Mother provides the staples that round out their meals. The men want to hunt and hunt, and this greed for meat makes Corn Mother sad, yet she loves her descendants and does not challenge them. One morning her grandsons spy on Corn Mother as she makes the corn, which falls from her body whenever she slaps her sides. This terrifies the men, and they reject her. She withers, but before dying, instructs them to bury her in the earth and tells them she will arise again as a plant that will need to be cultivated. Corn Mother does as she promises, but in her new form she cannot be blithely generous. People must learn to cultivate her; they must earn her fruitfulness. With this lesson Corn Mother teaches humankind the need for balance and the love of nature's gifts."

Amos recalls the medicine women coming backstage after 2001 and the Afghanistan War. One said to her, "Do you feel the soul of our land is in the right hands....Would you turn over your physical mother to those who are in control of she who we call America?" Bluntly put, the medicine woman tells her "Caretakers or Takers- you're either one or the other. If the masses keep taking and not caretaking, then your grandchildren will have very little to nurture them....Your loyalty should not be to anyone who claims power over the land at any given time, whose intentions can change on a whim, depending if they've been seduced by power and what it brings."

I've never understood how things like clean water, air and soil ended up so low on our list of national priorities. It won't matter as much if you can't pay off student loans when the water isn't good to drink. One of the greatest environmental threats of our times I believe is the danger to our water supply by oil companies and politicians promising jobs and domestic energy production in the area of "natural" gas. I've written about my opposition to fracking, the process to extract natural gas, before. Fracking sounds like the premise for a dark science fiction story - but it's true. There was an article in The New York Times, "Tapping Into the Land, Dividing Its People" about fracking in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana - so they can pay off debts for building a failing casino?  My thoughts: when an oil company comes bearing gifts for your community's children - run. Burn their contracts. In Colorado, farmers are now competing with oil companies for water for these great domestic jobs and energy source. I need not consult a psychic to see higher food prices acoming. They're even tapping into municipal fire hydrants. Who do you think will win?

There's been a few news reports about cleaner air as a result of natural gas when it's used instead of coal, but does cleaner air trump polluted water? Not for me. Politicians only need to use the words "jobs" and "domestic energy" to generate applause. Both Obama and Romney support natural gas. On this issue, I call them takers, not caretakers. I applaud Obama's efforts with wind and solar, but am so disappointed when he speaks of  the 100 year supply of natural gas and the jobs it's going to create. He's mentioned it in the State of the Union and at his acceptance speech at the DNC. I would like to see Romney and Obama drink from a water supply that's been fracked or send their family members off for a week to take part in these "good" jobs. I hope they'll join the side of the caretakers.

On a lighter note...Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, by Jessie Hartland, free, the library. The hardcover retails for $17.99 (is that what children's books cost?!) While everyone was looking at their fancy gizmos waiting in line for the bus at Port Authority (I'm often listening to music on one), this time was cheerfully lost in this most charming children's picture book about the life of Julia Child. With her 100th birthday coming up in August, I was searching for books and discovered a slew of new Child fare

Who says you can't learn something new from a children's book? One of her projects while working at the OSS (Office of Strategic Services in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka) was to help develop a shark repellant to keep curious sharks away from underwater explosives meant to destroy enemy ships. I also learned her high school French class was a disaster, it took her two years to speak well enough to get by once in Paris, and four years to become fluent. I've taken community school French classes here and there and love the language, but have never put a serious effort into it. Really, it was most fun to socialize with other Francophiles.

Minette's Feast, by Susanna Reich, free, the library.

Less informative biography wise but very sweet about Julia and her cat Minette. I'm loving all things feline lately - maybe the spell of watching Disney's Aristocats hasn't worn off yet. I think I'm so drawn to Julia's path even though I don't share much of her cooking beliefs (this vegetarian won't be deboning a duck anytime soon!) I'm always fascinated how Julia didn't figure out her path until she was in her 40s. I'm grateful - vey grateful - for my job, but I wonder about passions for a career.

The Goffle Road Murders of Passiac County: The 1850 Van Winkle Killings by Don Everett Smith, $20, Well Read Book Store, Hawthorne, New Jersey.

An intriguing account of the murder of a judge, John Van Winkle, and his wife, Jane, in Hawthorne, the county's first murder trial that would send the killer to the gallows. Crowds came to watch as high as Garret Mountain on execution day. Imagine if there were public executions today. I pass the house the murders took place in nearly every day and never knew its dark story until this book found me at this wonderful local bookstore, which I decided to support with my purchase.

The author starts the book with the haunting "The House with Nobody In It" by Joyce Kilmer, which talks of an old farmhouse the narrator passes,

"I have never seen a haunted house but I hear there are such things;
That hold the talk of spirits, their mirth and sorrowings.
I know this house isn't haunted, and I wish it were, I do;
For it wouldn't be so lonely if it had a ghost or two."

The poem ends...

"So whenever I go to Suffern along the Erie track
I never go by the empty house without stopping and looking back
Yet it hurts me to look at the crumbling roof and shutters fallen apart,
For I can't help thinking the poor old house is a house with a broken heart."

Think of all the lonely old houses you've passed. Do you believe in ghosts? Consider all the storytellers there are about our very own local history. Why the nation is consumed with "reality" television when history serves up so much more interesting fare, that's the greatest mystery to me.

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life, by Pamela Smith Hill $9.94,

"If you write for children, then I am in my second childhood," Wilder's editor George Bye declared. Anyone who has found these books as an adult will understand that sentiment. 

The book made me a better Little House reader. I've read through By the Shores of Silver Lake. The book examines closely the relationship Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane shared professionally and looks at some of the fact and fiction of the book. No, Lane didn't pen the books, but according to Hill did largely lift large parts of Laura's unpublished (rejected) Pioneer Girl manuscript to piece together Lane's Let the Hurricane Roar. I think what most surprised me is that the Ingalls family was made to sound so isolationist when they weren't. That snug winter in the surveyor's house? They had a boarder. All alone in The Long Winter? They had a couple with them who had to have a shotgun wedding. No going to see the railroad with Pa in By the Shores of Silver Lake. He would have never taken her along.  In the books they always looked West. Not so in real life, as they backtracked.

There was also some interesting history here. I didn't know Little Women is considered the first young adult novel. Wilder's books start out as children's books but branch out into young adult fare as Laura's journey grows.

Rose Wilder Lane instructed her mother to "show not tell" readers, and show she does in her magnificent Let the Hurricane Roar. Dare I say it, I almost liked this more than some of the Little House books.

I inhaled my library copy before the one I ordered from my favorite online book retailer Better World Books arrived. I just couldn't wait a day longer for it.

This book is a cautionary tale against accruing debt that could be true for any age, and reminds us of the humbling power of Mother Nature, which simply doesn't care about your plans. Spoiler alert: after the grasshopper invasion strikes as it did in On the Banks of Plum Creek," she writes,

"Grasshoppers, going west - like the railroads, like the people, like cities and settled lands and law and government. Yet grasshoppers were as alien, as indifferent to human suffering, as wind or cold. Perhaps they were no more indifferent to human beings than human fate itself."

Natural Supernatural Love, J.J. Brown, $8.99, A collection of poetry to read in your comfy, coziest share under a blanket with some tea. Sharing one of my favorite poems here, what seems like a perfect end to this Storytellers column.

Library Lantern

light a candle in the lantern
this quiet evening to read by
and close the patterned metal door
to watch the shadows cling to the wall
as people have done evenings
for ages and ages past
lean against the bookcase
and imagine each book is a person
lined up side by side
and take one from the shelf
to leaf through captured thoughts
of lives that refused to end
light a candle in the lantern
this quiet evening to read by.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Greatest of American Dreams: Leisure Time. Weekend in Lake George, New York.

There’s scene in the Lifetime film about Georgia O’Keeffe’s life where she tells Alfred Stieglitz what she misses living in New York City – the sky. Next scene: they are off to the Stieglitz family home in Lake George, New York. I had no idea of the O’Keeffe connection to Lake George until I watched the film. She seems to be finding me - almost nudging her way into my life this year, kind of like Laura Ingalls Wilder did last year (she's in my life too at the moment, more about that in a future Storytellers column). Working in the city, I miss the sky also and wanted for a change to be greeted by scenes of towering trees and a landscape of water – not towering buildings and a landscape of tourists, always-in-a-hurry commuters (me) and locals in New York City. Confession: I have a fantasy about having a lake house. Not so frugal, right?

Parasailing on the lake. The cost for this was $75 per person. I've never done this (Steve has). We skipped the chance on this visit.

I had never thought much about the name of the iconic Adirondack chairs - since I didn't know the name until spotting this book.

From history from Wikipedia,

“The precursor to today's Adirondack chair was designed by Thomas Lee in 1903.

He was on vacation in Westport, New York, in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains, and needed outdoor chairs for his summer home. He tested the first designs on his family. The name Muskoka was adopted from the municipality of Muskoka, Ontario, a cottage country area north of Toronto.

The original Adirondack chair was made with eleven pieces of wood, cut from a single board, with a straight back and seat. It also featured wide armrests, which became a hallmark of the Adirondack chair.

After arriving at a final design for the "Westport plank chair," Lee offered it to Harry Bunnell, a carpenter friend in Westport, who was in need of a winter income. Bunnell quickly realized the chair was the perfect item to sell to Westport's summer residents, and apparently without asking Lee's permission, Bunnell filed for and received patent 794,777 in 1905. Bunnell manufactured his plank chairs for the next twenty years. His "Westport chairs" were all signed and made of hemlock in green or medium dark brown. The modern name refers to the Adirondack Mountains, which Westport is near.”

The Minnie Ha Ha sounds like something out of Rose Nylund's St. Olaf stories on the Golden Girls! We mentioned our AAA membership and got a small savings. Only a dollar or two, but it adds up, right? I kept thinking how equally beautiful the scenery must be when the leaves change colors in autumn.

Carrot ginger soup and a bleu cheese, walnut and New York apple salad at the Boardwalk Restaurant. With our tickets from the Minnie Ha Ha, we got $5 off a starter, so my soup was free. :-) 

We liked the Bank Café, a former bank, so much we ate here twice.

So decadent! Nutella stuffed French toast and a Snickerdoodle coffee and OJ.
A veggie panini with vegetable chips and butternut apple soup (so good!) with an iced tea.

Wine tasting at Adirondack Winery, $5 for 7 tastings. I always think of the film Sideways when I do these. Their grapes are from California but are pressed locally. I took home a bottle of blackberry merlot.

A veggie burger and raspberry smoothie at the super casual (note the papertowel holder for napkins!) Lookout Cafe. I love guacamole, but never thought to put it on a veggie burger. I gave up eating meat when I was 14, and never miss a "real" burger.

We took a nice long drive around the lake and visited historic Fort Ticonderoga.

 We didn't really plan our visit too well, so we just missed the tour of the King's Garden. Native Americans would plant the three sisters crop of corn, squash and beans.

Signs here talk about culinary and medicinal uses of herbs. I think about just the aromatherapy from the herbs. There's no man-made perfume that can compare to the scents of brushing my hands against the basil or rosemary in our garden.

James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of The Mohicans is on my long to-read list. Classic Starts publishes a series to get younger readers familiar with the classics.

Interested in names like I am? According to Wikipedia, “The lake was originally named the Andia-ta-roc-te, by local Native Americans. James Fenimore Cooper in his narrative Last of the Mohicans called it the Horican, after a tribe which may have lived there, because he felt the original name was too hard to pronounce….

On August 28, 1755, William Johnson led British colonial forces to occupy the area in the French and Indian War. He renamed the lake as Lake George for King George II and built a protecting fortification at its southern end.”

We stayed at the Sundowner Motel. We took the cheapest room - of course ;-) - which was 99 plus tax (so $120).  The rooms were very clean, small and basic. We enjoyed the heated pool (away from the busy road, but then the pool motor is very noisy when trying to enjoy a quiet moment by their small private lake), the jacuzzi, and free kayak rentals. My first time on a kayak - so fun.

I love these little roadside farmstands.

The sweetest yummiest blackberries.

We're going to get some tents and camping supplies from Steve's father he doesn't want anymore, and hope to use them on future outings. I've never been camping.

I adored all the cute bear decor. Lake George did feel so welcoming.

On golden lake.
Did you know that "about 57% of working Americans had unused vacation time at the end of 2011, and most of them left an average of 11 days on the table - or nearly 70 percent of their allotted time off, according to a study performed by Harris Interactive for JetBlue," CNN/Money reported. Vacation time is something those who came before us fought for and I cherish every vacation day off, whether it's a trip to the Southwest, a weekend getaway to Lake George or even a staycation day. Don't lose your vacation days! I also consider vacations a vital part of our economy and this American resents the constant stream of photos with consumers with shopping bags in so many articles on the economy's health. I support inns/motels, restaurants, shops, museums, parks, local shops and more with travel. Happy travels to you, wherever your road may take you.