29 February 2012

Musing about Artistes

When I read about Arthur Miller dying, I remember that my first thought was:  “Well, poor Marilyn must be tap-dancing to the front gates and back again!“  He treated her pretty badly, including writing a scathing and cruel memoir after her death. 

So my question is this: When does brilliance trump being overbearing and hubristic? And should it? Yes, Miller was a brilliant writer. Just as Picasso was a brilliant artist and Byron was a brilliant poet. But they could all be notoriously hateful and selfish to people in their immediate intimate circle. (Byron was lionized when he was at the height of his ill-tempered outbursts and antisocial antics in the European salons, and still women swooned at his feet, petulance notwithstanding.)

There are countless other examples of writers, poets, painters, musicians, sculptors, etc. who treated their loved ones abominably and acted like selfish high-strung children, and yet they're lauded and revered for their accomplishments. (Don't get me wrong—for the most part I'm standing shoulder to shoulder, lauding and revering with the best of them, guilty of the same oversights.)

Unkempt and ill-bathed, prone to moodiness and fits of temper, so self-absorbed he would sell paintings to friends for cash and steal them back when he got half the chance, Soutine was a difficult character. But the power of his genius made him enormously attractive and he was rarely without a patron.

So why do we let "artistes" get away with things we wouldn't dream of indulging in the average husband, wife, lover or friend?  Is it just a privilege of being a genius? And an occupational hazard for the people around them?  

23 February 2012

Shotgun House

"Shotgun House 1850-1910.  Found throughout New Orleans. Usually one-story, but many with second story set at rear of house (called camelback). Narrow rectangular structure raised on brick piers. Most have narrow front porch covered by a roof apron and supported by columns and brackets, often with lacey Victorian ornamentation. Predominant New Orleans house type. Wood exterior."

They could have just said CUTE.  

22 February 2012

An Island Garden

Celia Laighton Thaxter was born in New England in June 1835. When she was four years old, her father and his brother bought three of the islands in the Isles of Shoals off the New England coast: Hog Island, Smutty-nose Island and Malaga Island. Her father was, for a time, a lighthouse keeper on White Island.  In 1841, the family moved to Smutty-nose Island where Celia’s mother turned their home (Haley House) into an Inn. Over the years the family divided its time between the islands, renaming Hog Island “Appledore” and building a summer hotel there in 1848.  When she was 16, Celia married Levi Thaxter and they divided their time between the mainland and the Isles of Shoals. From that time until her death, Celia looked after her family, wrote volumes of poetry, and tended her beloved garden on Appledore.  Her book “An Island Garden”, beautifully illustrated by American artist Childe Hassam, is a treasure and I recommend it to anyone who loves gardens.

“AT the Isles of Shoals, among the ledges of the largest island, Appledore, lies the small garden which in the following pages I have endeavored to describe. Ever since I could remember anything, flowers have been like dear friends to me, comforters, inspirers, powers to uplift and to cheer. A lonely child, living on the lighthouse island ten miles away from the mainland, every blade of grass that sprang out of the ground, every humblest weed, was precious in my sight, and I began a little garden when not more than five years old. From this, year after year, the larger one, which has given so much pleasure to so many people, has grown.”

21 February 2012

Laissez les bons temps rouler

 "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans,
and miss it both night and day....

..the moonlight on the bayou, a creole tune that fills the air...

..the lazy Mississippi hurryin' into spring..."

Happy Mardi Gras!

20 February 2012

Peter Pan

Sir James Barrie was such a gentle soul on paper, and said such lovely wise things.  Here are a just a few:
  • Forget not your past, for in the future it may help you grow.
  •  Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.
  •  Temper is a weapon that we hold by the blade.
  •  The most useless are those who never change through the years.
  • God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December. 
  • A safe but sometimes chilly way of recalling the past is to force open a crammed drawer. If you are searching for anything in particular you don't find it, but something falls out at the back that is often more interesting.

And my favorite....
  • Always be a little kinder than necessary. 

17 February 2012

Go Ask Alice

Someone or something has been in the cottage since I came to live here. It's an old house so when I walk along the upstairs hallway, or down the stairs, there are several places where the boards creak. Several times a week, no matter the time of year, I can hear creaking floorboards along the upstairs hallway and then down the stairs, as if someone was walking. (Friends have been over and heard it too.) It's a very deliberate sound, so much so that I've actually gotten up and walked over the stairs to check but I never see anything.

Within moments of hearing the 'walking', the motion detector in the sitting room (which is directly across from the bottom step) will start to flicker, as if something has passed in front of it. And sometimes, when I'm sitting on the couch reading, I won't hear anything on the stairs but the detector will go on and off, on and off... as if someone or something is moving nearby.

Twice, something has tugged on the back of my dress: once when I was standing at the kitchen sink, and the following day when I was in the laundry room in the cellar. Each time I turned quickly (heart pounding!) but there was nothing there.

One summer's day, when I was standing at the top of the stairs, the curtains started to shift slightly as if there was a breeze, and I felt cool air on my face. It was a very hot day, very humid and still, and that particular window has never been opened since I bought the cottage, so I have no idea where a 'breeze' might have been coming from. Whether the tugging and the breeze are related to the 'walking' I hear on the stairs
or the motion detector going off is anyone's guess.

For as long as I can remember I've called the ghost 'Alice' but really I don't know what or who it might be. Some day I'll have to check the records to see who's lived here and the circumstances of their leaving.  Or some night maybe I'll just ask Alice!

15 February 2012

Two Little Rooms

If I lived in two little rooms
there would always be the smell of dogs and bacon…
there might not always be heat
but there would be cloth napkins in silver rings.

If I lived in two little rooms
there would always be woolen shawls and chairs that rock and beckon…
the wash might not always get done
but there would be freshly ground pepper.

 If I lived in two little rooms
the walls would be made of books…
shelves would groan under the weight of quarrelling volumes
jousting with one another for space and attention.

 If I lived in two little rooms
there would always be wine spilled on the table…
china pots would rest lazily near half-eaten muffins,
refugees all from the last tea-party.

If I lived in two little rooms
there would always be an open window…
there might not always be money
but there would be the scent of rain and a view of the stars.

 If I lived in two little rooms
the view of the world would filter itself through plantlife…
each window with its something green, rooting or flowering,
and this one or that one drooping lazily towards the sun.

If I lived in two little rooms
I would choose my visitors carefully…
there might not always be people about
but there would be frequent guests with tails and wings and whiskers.

 If I lived in two little rooms
evening would be a special time…
there would always be oil in the lamp and a fire on the grate,
and cheese and bread and mysterious stories
for those few late friends who would know the way.

14 February 2012

Love and Hearts

Cathy: Heathcliff, make the world stop right here. Make everything stop and stand still and never move again. Make the moors never change and you and I never change.
: The moors and I will never change. Don't you, Cathy.
: I can't. I can't. No matter what I ever do or say, Heathcliff, this is me now; standing on this hill with you. This is me forever. Oh, it's wonderful! Heathcliff, let's never leave it.
Heathcliff : Never in our lives! Let all the world confess, that there is not in all the world a more beautiful damsel than the Princess Catherine of Yorkshire.
Cathy : But I - I'm still your slave.
Heathcliff : No, Cathy. I now make you my queen. Whatever happens out there, here you will always be my queen. 

10 February 2012

As unexpected as a hymn tune in a cent-in-the-slot talking machine

I nearly missed it as I walked along this morning: a big box on the steps of one of the prettiest houses on the street.  They've been having work done so I thought it must be full of materials for whatever project they have going on inside.  And then I saw what the box said:

My arms were nearly full as I walked into my office, trying to balance Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Hawthorne's The Celestial Railroad, and countless other titles. One of the oddest finds was A Dictionary of Similes, printed in 1916. Needless to say I've spent an inordinate amount of time thumbing through it today, giggling to myself at the archaic references.  Here are just a few.
  • As incongruous as a blacksmith with a white silk apron
  • As placid as a soft-shell crab on a plate of parsley
  • As affable as a wet dog
  • As crazy as a woman's watch
  •  As dry as a London newspaper
  • As drunk as a boiled owl
  • As jealous as a couple of hairdressers
  • As round and pale as a pair of suet dumplings
  • As wise as her mother's apron string

No doubt by the time I get all this booty home this evening, I will be 'limping like a sore-footed soldier striding to the band'... not to mention 'tired as tombstones'.

09 February 2012

It's all in your perspective

 Two men look out through the same bars:
One sees the mud, and one the stars.
A Cluster of Quiet Thoughts  Frederick Langbridge

Antoine: Windmills, remember, if you fight with them may swing round their huge arms and cast you down into the mire!
Cyrano: Or up, among the stars!
Cyrano de Bergerac —Edmond Rostand

08 February 2012

Music from the Mountain

With winter still here and the garden fast asleep, sitting indoors and enjoying music while I knit or read is the best possible way to spend these cold dark months.

'Songs from the Mountain' is one of the wonderful gifts I received from a dear friend several years back. It features fiddler Dirk Powell, instrumentalist and vocalist Tim O'Brien, and banjoist John Herrmann performing traditional Appalachian ballads and tunes like “Backstep Cindy”, “Skillet Good and Greasy”, “Mole in the Ground”, and “Cluck Old Hen”.

"Old time country music has been kept pure and pristine hidden in the mountains of North Carolina and wherever else the immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and England settled in the 1700s. The music is played on the fiddle, the guitar, the mandolin, occasionally the banjo and in some instances accompanied on the hammered dulcimer and it has endured for several centuries."

Eerie, haunting, poignant, heart-stopping and soul-searching. This music is the soul of the mountain come to life. You can hear some clips here for free if you scroll down the page and click the little arrow to the left of any song.

07 February 2012

Garden Thrift

After reading the posts about being thrifty on Claudia's lovely blog, I began to think of the ways I've cut costs in my own little cottage and I realized that my penchant for repurposing leans very heavily towards the garden. I enjoy using unlikely items as "garden ornaments" and have walked through the streets countless times carrying (or dragging) various discarded bibs and bobs back to my garden.  In fact my reputation is such that my neighbors have started bringing me things they find on trash day if they think I might use it.  (The wooden oars that rest against the crook of an apple tree in the side garden seem to be just waiting for a boat to float along.   A gift from a neighbor who said "I knew you'd want these.")

But in addition to whimsy, I've learned that I can also create useful things at little or no cost. 

House and garden design books are so inspiring. Who doesn't love paging through the lucious pictures, imagining that trellis or those moss covered jardiniers in their own garden?  But I have neither the money nor the right tools to buy or build many of the things I covet, so I've taken to 'cheating' a bit ... bringing elements into the garden in ways I can afford and accomplish on my own.  (Or with the help of kind neighbors who pass along items they no longer need or donate hours of sweat equity!) For example, I can place the discarded wrought iron mirror from one neighbor on top of the iron treadle of another neighbor's old sewing machine and end up with a new garden table by the front door. 

Here are two items I recommend for the financially challenged or power-tool impaired. 

I once lived in a house where the landlord had beautiful raised beds for his herbs.  You can buy raised beds to put together, but they're a little pricey. And I don't have the proper tools to build them myself. I solved this by placing an old wooden ladder on the ground and planting herbs in between the rungs. Instant "raised bed"!

 Before ...
 ... after.

I have always yearned for a little pergola at the front of my cottage, where I can sit and enjoy the morning or afternoon sun in summer, or the mid-day sun in winter.  Again, a 'proper' pergola was cost-prohibitive and/or too difficult for me to construct on my own. My solution was to buy two trellises (on sale!) and place them a few feet apart.  Instant "pergola"!

 Early spring ...
 ... much later in the season when the garden is high enough
to afford quite a bit of privacy.

I don't have pictures to post for the 'thrifty garden solutions' below, but will try to remedy that this summer. 

I love to grow flowers that ramble and climb—moonflower, morning glory, bittersweet, roses, scarlet runner beans—and I've found that old headboards make the best trellises. I have a Danish modern one, a white iron one, and a gold-painted wooden one.  I also use old wooden step ladders as trellises, and find the steps are the perfect place for flower pots.... as long as the squirrels don't knock them off.

Garden stoneware can be quite expensive, but cinderblocks can be purchased fairly cheaply.  Here's a nifty concoction that can grow garden moss on your cinderblocks and make them look 'old'.  Plant flowers down inside the cinderblock holes and you have a lovely 'old' jardiniere.

Gather a clump of moss, removing as much dirt from the moss as possible.
Place moss in a blender and add one of the following:
  • 1 cup of yoghurt or
  • 1 cup of buttermilk or
  • 1 can of beer (plus 1 tsp sugar)
Blend thoroughly to pulverize the moss. 
It should end up as a very thick 'soup'.
(A good ratio is 1 part moss to 4 parts liquid.)

Spread the soupy mixture onto your object wherever you want
the moss to grow using a brush or your fingers

What is it about February that makes me want to write about nothing but gardens.... 

06 February 2012

Bye baby bunting

It's odd how cycles present themselves.  After months of knitting adult socks, mittens, scarves and winter toques as Christmas gifts, I now find myself, once again, taking up yarn and knitting pins. But this time it's to knit clothes for three imminent babies.  In all three cases I'm using a soft single ply yarn and Hunca Munca sized needles. (Read: extremely small)

For one baby I'm using a pattern from a well-worn Orlon pattern book. It's a white sacque with open chevron work on the body and arms.  My mother made one for my daughter, and I made one each for my grandchildren.  Of course the intricate cutwork means that every one of the 8-rows in the pattern is different.  And when I say different I mean they are unlike one another in nearly every possible way and nearly impossible to memorize!  So between the yarn-overs, the knit two togethers, the knit three (no wait, knit five.... no wait, knit seven), the slipped stitches, and the subsequent passing of those slipped stiches over other stitches, I was actually talking aloud to myself by the end of the day—not only trying to keep track of the pattern but also counting off the stitches to make sure I hadn't dropped any.  (Ed. Note:  I did drop several at various points and had to tear out rows at least three times, including an entire sleeve.)

Here is a photo of the sacque from the pattern book.

The other baby will be getting a hat, the pattern for which matches the saque.  (Alas, more chevrons, but only on the rim, thank the gods.)  The third baby may be getting a blanket... I haven't decided yet.

It's nice to sit by the fire on a mid-winter day, knitting quietly.  Thank you, babies, for this lovely opportunity.

01 February 2012

Mrs. Jack

Daughter: Mom! I finally got to go to the Gardner Museum
Me: Really?  Oh! I'm so glad. Did you like it?  Isn't it gorgeous? 
Daughter: I loved it!  But you know...  it feels just like our house, only everything's more expensive.

Yes, I'm something of a packrat—or as I prefer to think, 'caretaker of the past'. But the packrat of all packrats, the Queen of Caretakers, was the divine Mrs. Jack Gardner.  "Isabella" to her friends.

Isabella Stewart Gardner's life was remarkable. And the Gardner Museum is the jewel in her crown, the moreso for having been her actual home. She carefully oversaw the building of Fenway Court (as it was first known) from the first designs on paper to the last roof tile, and when it was completed she filled it to overflowing with all the things she'd collected throughout her life—items she cherished and loved and put on display in a charming willy nilly fashion, as we all tend to do with life's souvenirs.  (Except that in her case, the 'souvenir' might be a stained glass window from a French cathedral, or a carved pillar from a Roman ruin.) But despite the pedigree of her possessions and their remarkable, untold value, it's more like walking through a magical storehouse of precious booty than a formal gallery.  Or, as my daughter sensed, it is indeed like wandering through someone's home.  Here was a place where Isabella could lean her latest acquisition—perhaps a Degas painting—against a piece of Etruscan sculpture, or on the floor next to a French prie-deux, or on the wall next to a painting from an entirely different era, not caring if Sargent and Valasquez made strange bedfellows.  Because as well as being a museum that she would eventually will to the City of Boston, it was where she lived for the last 23 years of her life—a lovingly tended canvas against which she leaned all the priceless flotsam and jetsom of a remarkable existence.

From the outside it looks somewhat underwhelming, but once you step through the doors you're greeted by a sumptuous 15th c. Venetian palace, with a courtyard full of orchids, precious tiles and statuary, and balcony after balcony on four sides that reach upward three storeys to a skylight that nearly covers the entire roof.

Her philanthropy was legendary, and in her day she was one of the chief patrons of the arts in America. She travelled frequently, was painted by the likes of Sargent and Zorn, and was known around town as "Donna Isabella" or "Isabella of Boston". Her bequest includes more than 7,000 pieces of correspondence, from the authors, painters, musicians and poets of her time. On the occasion of her home's completion, she had members of the Boston Symphony over to perform in the music room for guests. 

One of the catchphrases at the Museum is "encounter art and beauty"
and when you walk through the doors of Isabella's home, it couldn't be more true.