20 December 2011

Detritus Maximus

I was walking through my cottage the other day, getting ready to 'deck the halls' for the holiday and muttering to myself—as I am wont to do—about things I'd like to change, chores that needed to be done, and (my personal favorite passtime) musing about where things came from.  Family.  Friends.  Good Will.  Yard Sales.  Curbs in front of neighbors' houses on trash day.  (Funny, how the word 'curb' means to restrain or keep in check, and yet I simply cannot restrain or check myself from dragging home all manner of chairs, shelves, tables, baskets, oars, plant pots or bed headboards on trash day.)

In any case, I noticed that nearly every room has one of two items:  a writing desk and/or a rocking chair.  There are two rocking chairs in the downstairs parlor, one in the kitchen, one in the dining room, two in the upstairs den (a child's rocker in addition to an adult one), and three—count 'em: three—on the verandah.  I don't know what it is about the soothing motion of a rocker, but I can't imagine a home without one.  (Apparently, I can't imagine a ROOM without one.) 

 My first rocker—a maple "Boston" rocker—was a gift from my parents when I was a teenager. The next—a 'nursing' rocker which allows a mother to hold her child unencumbered by chair arms—was a hand-me-down from a childhood neighbor. The caning on the seat and back was ruined but we had it repaired by the Association for the Blind. The next rocker—a 'kitchen' rocker—was purchased at a yard sale. It came with chipped paint, a broken spoke, and a wide enough seat to make sitting in it a real pleasure while things were baking in the oven. A more recent acquisition—a velvet Victorian 'Swan' rocker—was dragged from the curb next door when my neighbors were moving. The rockers on the veranda—tall white beauties with rush backs and seats—belonged to a friend who used them on his porch for many years and then passed them on to me before he died. The child's rocker was a yard sale acquisition for my daughter, and now her children (and the occasional teddy bear) get comfortable there.

As for writing desks, there's one in the dining room (the one most often used), one in the parlor, one in the guest room, one in the upstairs den and one in the master bedroom.  Admittedly the one in the den is actually a dining table, which makes a wonderful desk.  [Read: more square footage to fill with stuff] And the one in the master bedroom, which belonged to my grandmother, is currently serving as a Vanity table to hold photos, baubles, ring holders and porcelain boits des bijoux.  The one in the parlor—which now holds books, candlesticks, an old cricket ball and a bronze lion—is an old oak secretarial desk from the cellar of my office. It has a tiny pen drawer and a wooden tray that slides out, presumably for the secretary to lean on as she wrote. ("Miss Perrywinkle, take a letter.") Still, a desk is a desk and they clearly speak to my love of writing—novels, poems, letters to friends, journals for myself—as well as my penchant for times past when people actually sat at a desk, took a pen, and communicated with one another without wires, machines, dials, keypads or electricity.

I am the original owner of only one of these items—the "Boston" Rocker— and so I never tire of wondering about the others. Their pedigree, the homes they came from, the people who loved, used, and cast them aside.  When my grandchildren visit I invariably find them, at one time or another, seated at the writing desk in the dining room, thumbing through my stationery, choosing pens from the holder, writing "letters" to me or simply scribbling drawings. Or they'll jockey for a seat at the desk in the upstairs den, tapping away at the antique Royal typewriter and poking around in the cubby holes of the desk organizer.  And they both gravitate to the rocking chairs in the parlor whenever it's time to watch a film or cartoon, moving slowly backwards and forwards, surrounded by shawls and pillows.

In one man's trash is another woman's treasures.

12 December 2011

On Writing

Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.  Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sort of writing as "good" and other sorts as "bad", is fearful behavior.  Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.  No writer is entirely without sin in these matters. All I ask is that you do as well as you can. 

No matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can't lie and say there are no bad writers.  Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers.  Some are on-staff at your local newspaper, usually reviewing little-theatre productions or pontificating about the local sports teams.  Some have scribbled their way to homes in the Caribbean, leaving a trail of pulsing adverbs, wooden characters, and vile passive-voice constructions behind them.  Others hold forth at open-mike poetry slams, wearing black turtlenecks and wrinkled khaki pants; they spout doggerel about "my angry lesbian breasts" and "the tilted alley where I cried my mother's name."

Writers form themselves into the pyramid we see in all areas of human talent and human creativity.  At the bottom are the bad ones.  Above them is a group which is slightly smaller but still large and welcoming; these are the competent writers.  They may also be found on the staff of your local newspaper, on the racks at your local bookstore, and at poetry readings on Open Mike Night.  These are folks who somehow understand that although a lesbian may be angry, her breasts will remain breasts.

The next level is much smaller.  These are the really good writers.  Above them -- above almost all of us -- are the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws and Eudora Welty.  They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain.

There are two theses, both simple.  The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments.  The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it  is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

from "On Writing" by Stephen King

08 December 2011

Fatal Attraction

Earlier this year I ducked into a second-hand bookstore near my office.  ("Just to browse.")  45 minutes later I was placing money on the counter and walking out with books that smelled as if they'd been in someone's cellar for the past 100 years. I came across this stash the other day and decided they need to be on my WINTER READING pile:

"Topper" by Thorne Smith
This was one of my favorite television shows as a child. A socialite couple is killed in an avalanche along with the Saint Bernard who attempts to save them. Their ghosts (including the dog) return to haunt and irritate a stuffy aristocrat, Cosmo Topper, who now lives in their former home.  I remember that everyone (not including the dog) wore evening gowns and tuxedos and sipped champagne at all hours of the day and night.

"The Romance of Tristan and Iseult"
As retold by Joseph Bedier, translated by Hilaire Belloc, c. 1945


"Manon Lescaut" by Abbe Prevost. 
I love this opera and have always wanted to read the original story. Although I've never understood how anyone could actually die of thirst in Louisiana, which is 6 feet below sea level. Romantic license..?

"The Story of an African Farm" by Olive Schreiner. 
I'm fascinated by tales of Colonial Africa and India and this particular book—written in 1883—comes with a Dutch glossary in the back.

07 December 2011

To everything there is a season

Today it is raining and the air is heavy with the scent of the tide from the nearby sea. (We are nearly like an island, after all, with over 400 miles of coastline.)  A thick balmy wind blustered around the cottage most of the night, strangely warm for all its fury.

I truly love this time of year! The scents, the colors, the mindset. The earth turning in on itself, getting ready to settle in for that long winter half-sleep. Russet and golden leaves scattered over the pavement like a Persian carpet. The sharp scent of woodsmoke on the air in the night, rising from people's chimneys. The chilly air that settles around the cottage as the sun goes down. The sweet smell of rotting plants and the damp musty soil, still soft enough to work with a spade though not for long. Soon it will be like stone underfoot. Impossible to imagine anything growing in it! And yet, like a dream or miracle it will soften again in the spring rain. But for now? For now it's getting ready to sleep, tired after a summer of sustaining so much beauty, so many blossoms, so much color and scent. Time to rest and replenish itself. 

Darkness is settling in so much earlier these days. Twilight comes so quickly. Too dark, too soon. The sun is angled off to the side, all day, as if he, too, is tired and can't hold his head up. The burial ground looks lonelier now, with the falling leaves scudding in the wind and the trees nearly bare. Wind in the cemetery is always sad I think. It makes me wonder if the dead can hear it, like a lonely whistling or moaning over their heads. The bare trees make it easier to see the acres of headstones and monuments, the marble angels reaching heavenward, the stone maidens with their arms outstretched to strew flowers over the graves. Black ravens sit in the naked branches overhead, like ghoulish caretakers or guardians. They seem to live there, although I can't be sure. Each morning I hear them - cawing and swirling overhead in flocks, flying up the road from the burial ground and finding their way into the trees nearby. And then at dusk, they make their way down the road again, clouds of them, with their raucous cries, disappearing back into the burial ground. Strange.

I always think of reading as winter nears, and of being inside by the fire, with a shawl around my shoulders and cups of tea and piles and piles of books nearby. All of them waiting for me and the long dark months ahead when I can read quietly as the world around me dozes. It's a time for settling in, like the earth, and being only half-wakeful. Dreamy and quiet and restful. 

02 December 2011


Bungalow by the sea
Bungalow in the sea air
 Climbing rose and time to spare
 The sun sets over the bungalow
Seasoned by time, it's front steps sway 
 Music plays on the radio
 The little bungalow still stands today

01 December 2011

The Inscrutable Sock

Well, after several hours of pondering, and a few false starts, I finally managed to get The Inscrutable Sock -- aka Fancy Silk Sock from my vintage pattern book -- onto three needles.

My mother used to say that when you were in pain, frustrated, or in some dire circumstance you should offer up your suffering to get souls out of Purgatory.  I think several box-cars made it out last night and are riding the rails heavenward.  And I'm hopeful that my nervous tic is only temporary.