23 May 2012

A Map and Memoir of Your Past

I saw this Memoir exercise in a magazine quite a few years ago
and recently stumbled across it again.

Memoir - Part I
Make a map of the earliest neighborhood you can remember. Include as much detail as you can. Who lived where? What were the secret places? Where did your friends live? Where did the weird people live? Where were the houses of the friends of your brothers and sisters? Where were the off-limits places? Where was your favorite place to spend time or play? Were there any stores, schools or churches? A cemetery? What route did you take to school?

Your map can be as simple as a series of lines with X's, or as complex as a poster board with colored markers, magazine cutouts, and fabric swatches for lawns. Regardless of how you approach your map, enjoy yourself. If it takes 15 minutes, or a week, if it's a scrap of paper, or a fiberglass diorama: make a map of your earliest childhood neighborhood.

As you draw your map notice how it opens your memory up. You start to see and hear things you haven’t thought of for years. Take time for a little daydreaming as you draw your map. Maps can unlock memory, recreating a world so that as you draw, the world of your map is gone. The more you draw, the more comes to mind. Things you thought were lost.

Memoir - Part II
So you’ve drawn your map. Now tell a story from your map. Don’t edit yourself much. Don’t try for anything finished. The story needn’t be long. A couple of pages is fine. (But keep going if you get inspired.) “One day back in River Wood...” and off you go.  And always keep in mind what Flannery O’Connor said: “If nothing happens, it’s not a story.”  Now write. Look at your map, and write. Write a little, daydream a lot, write some more. Pretty soon you’ll have your story told.

I shall be trying this over the summer. I have a feeling my map will summon forth many old faces and places I've forgotten, but I look forward to meeting them all again, if only in my memory.

 Image: children's cognitive map, Charleston, USA

22 May 2012

Garden Reverie

The sun was beaming, there was a cool breeze, the wind chimes were tinkling.
We sat around the garden, gossiping and sipping Earl Grey sun tea and lemonade,
munching on orange-lemon sugar cookies.

A little wicker basket filled up quickly with brightly-colored packets of seeds....  

Cosmos, Cleome, California Poppy, Morning Glory, Moonflower,
Angel's Trumpet, Milkweed, Cotton, Beets, Sweet Peas,
Mexican Daisies, Bee Balm

All in all a lovely day.

21 May 2012

Connecting to the World Wide World

The conversation about technology and its place in our lives seems to keep cropping up now and then, and whenever it does I'm the ambivalent one in the corner.  For complete transparency here let me admit that— 

  • I have no internet service at home. 
  • I don't own an iPod or iPad 
  • I have a laptop that I use for writing or fussing with pictures. 
  • I have the internet at work for 8 hours.  (Why would I need more time than that online?) 
  • I got my first cell phone only last year as a Christmas present from a frustrated family member so I could use it when I'm travelling interstate to let them know if there are unexpected delays.  
  • My camera takes film that needs to be developed. (The aforementioned cell phone does take pictures but so far I've only managed photos of the inside of my purse and several of the sidewalk.)
So that's my techno world in a nutshell: a television, 3 land-line phones (two of which are rotary dials), a little-used cell phone, an old film camera, and a laptop with no internet service.  Yes, my life is positively madcap.

This means, of course, that my treatise on all things technical comes from a very, very slanted perspective.
But then, the only real opinions we can have, after all, are our own.  That alone makes them valid in a strangely comforting sort of way.  And while I know it's too late to push the techno baby back up the birth canal—it's out of the bag, as it were, and here we are—I also know that it's important to remember, now and then, the way things were, and that they can still be that way occasionally, if only to clear the data beta mega giga out of our minds and let a little fresh air in there.

When I was a teenager (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and lava had to be carried down the volcano by hand and thrown on sleeping villagers) you could only engage in 'techno tasks' in the privacy of your home or automobile, and generally only at certain moments in an otherwise busy and truly "connected" day.  And by connected I mean you looked around at the world as you walked along, and you heard things not through a machine but through something far more complex and miraculous. Your ears.  Granted, you could listen to the radio in the car or pretty much anywhere in your house. You could relax in your favorite chair or on your bed and listen to your favorite cassette.... or 8-track.... or vinyl album... or 45s.  But you would move into the parlor or den to watch television. (Usually with the entire family.) And if you wanted to make a telephone call you were limited to standing or sitting next to whatever wall or surface held the 'phone.  (Years later, if you had a cordless 'phone you might even be able to take that call on the front steps or patio. Talk about living on the edge.) The point is that while we had all of these remarkable technological gadgets, we were tethered to outlets and cords and the timing and location of these tasks were limited.  And the time we weren't engaging in them was techno-free.

Today people do all of these things wherever they like: at the dinner table, in cars, buses, trains and airplanes, walking down the street, at concerts, in supermarkets, in class. There are no boundaries, no limitations to where and when you can text, chat, surf, watch videos, television, movies or shuffle your tunes. Word on the street is that these technological playthings keep people connected to the world. I would argue that those ubiquitous little appendages actually prevent us from being connected—in any real way—to what is happening within the immediate physical space around us.  Which does beg the issue: do we want to be connected to the moment, or do we want to be connected to something (or someone) unseen in the distant ether?  I think both have their merits, but being ether-less and in the moment more often isn't such a bad thing. (Did I mention I'm a uni-tasker?)  

My mental questions to these folks when I see them on the street, clutching their device of choice like a life support system, are these:
  • How can you hear the birds sing if you have ear buds plugging your head?
  • How can you notice the landscape—or the car that's about to run you down—if your head is buried in the screen of your iPad as you walk along, or your opposable thumbs are twitching in spasms over micro-sized  keys?
  • How can you hear or notice anything if you are babbling into your iPhone?  (By the way, the double edge to that sword is that your babbling generally prevents anyone else within 5 feet of you from noticing or hearing anything but your babbling. But that's another topic...)
I would challenge anyone addicted to their electronic toys to experiment once in awhile:
  • if you have access to a computer during the day and are occasionally allowed to use it for personal reasons then don't go online at night or on weekends [Possible time-sensitive exceptions would include booking an airline flight or checking in for said flight]
  • if you're in a public place (concert, bus, restaurant, etc.) turn your cell phone off entirely.  [Unless you happen to be the close relative of someone who's about to go into hard labor]  Check for messages when you go outside if you must. But must you?  I mean really, what's so important?  Are you the deputy assistant to someone who rules a small country? No? Then unless the kids are home alone or someone you know is ill, or that hard labor thing, wait until you're home.
  • the next time you take a walk, leave your gadgets at home and just listen to the sounds of your town, village, city, suburb, and look around at things as you stroll along. It's good for the soul. And can sometimes be positively enlightening, captivating, educational, or just damned hilarious.
Again, I don't suggest people slide off the grid permanently and take up residence in my troglodyte environment.  Just now and then.  Don't let the so-called bridge of technology serve as a barrier between you and the immediate world that surrounds you. Life off the grid. Try it. You may like it.

18 May 2012

The Education of a Civilized Mind

A particular friend and I share a passion for the topic of education, literature, and culture. Whenever we get together we argue good naturedly about what should be changed, what must not be tampered with, what has been lost, what must be rescued and preserved before it is too late, indeed what it even means to be "educated".

Part of any education—and certainly part of mine—has to do not only with books but also with films, music, documentaries and art. Cultural experiences that, when taken in at the eye, heart and ear, open the world to us in ways that make a deep impression on the psyche and refine the edges of the human spirit.  It's to be expected, perhaps, that as time passes, certain archaic cultural touchstones erode and slip away, slowly but inexorably. I'm sure there are sayings and cultural knowledge shared amongst my great-grandparents and their contemporaries that are no longer part of the popular mindset and would be unrecognizable to me.  And no doubt by the time this current century turns, much of what is familiar to us culturally, many times by osmosis, may be forgotten, usurped by different touchstones, sayings, knowledge and experiences. That is, after all, one of the meanings of the word PAST.... a word that has something of missing or vanished in it, even as we speak it.

 Who knows if anyone will have seen "Gone With the Wind", "The Wizard of Oz" or "To Kill A Mockingbird" a century from now; or if mankind will still pepper conversations with quotable Shakespeare ("to thine own self be true", "such stuff as dreams are made of", "we have seen better days") or the Biblical references we take for granted ("having the patience of Job").  [Does anyone under the age of 30 know that the titles of Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath and Lillian Helman's play The Little Foxes are from Bible texts?]

If young people are meant to perpetuate at least a fraction of what we have come to know as our cultural history—and one could argue that perhaps they are not meant to—then it is imperative to expose them to the books, films, music and art that we deem representative of man's and woman's struggle and pleasure on this earth, to ensure that these things do not forever vanish, fading into the oblivion that occurs when the last person who remembers has passed on. 

One of the exercises my friend and I devised was a sort of check list, enumerating what we felt must be known by anyone under the age of 30 if they are to forge onward into middle life with any sort of grasp on our cultural past.  Here are some of the questions we posed to one another:
  • What 20 books (including complete works or anthologies) should be required of every young person?
  • What 10 films (from any era) should they see?
  • What 7 television programs (again from any era and including documentaries, series, cartoons, etc.) should they be familiar with?
  • What 5 plays should they be required to see?  (In person, watching dust motes fly off the stage floor.... not on film!)
  • What 3 operas, operettas or musical theatre pieces should they see or at the very least hear?
  • Which 5 pieces of art should they try to see in person if possible?

Something to think about. 

And with that, I bid you adieu. Parting, after all, is such sweet... well, you know.

10 May 2012

Gardener's Tea

Seed Swap
"Bring some seeds.... take some seeds."

Date: Saturday, 19 May 2012
Time: 10am-12noon
Place: In the garden

Bring "extra" seeds you saved from your garden 
(or packets you purchased at the store)
to swap with your neighbors.
Annuals, perennials, vegetables... all are welcome!

If they're your own seeds,
attach a small card describing
when and where to plant them,
how best to care for them,
and where they came from.

Cookies, Lemonade and Tea will be served

  * * *  

For several years I've been inviting my neighbors to walk up (or down) the road to my house for seed swaps in the spring, plant swaps in mid-summer, and bulb swaps in the fall. For every plant, bulb or packet of seeds you bring, you get to take one away. And in mid-winter, we have tea by the fire to talk about what plans we might have for our gardens in the coming season. We've also used this winter get-together to loan one another our favorite gardening books to take home, look over and be inspired.

So many of the plants, bulbs and flowers in my garden are the result of what I like to call gardeners generosity, and I love looking around a neighbor's garden and seeing plants that used to be in my own garden and are now thriving in theirs.

Anyone who has a garden—and who lives near others who enjoy gardening—can host one of these swaps. It's a lovely excuse to get together and a wonderful way to increase the bounty in your garden. (It's also a guilt-free way to thin out plants and seeds you no longer need!)  And if a neighbor you want to include doesn't have a garden?  

Bring a smile... take a smile!

03 May 2012

Rite of Spring

"I was thinking of walking down to the cemetery to visit the greenhouse today... do you want to come along?"
At the foot of the road there is a cemetery that dates back to the 18th c. and my neighbor and I  take walks there throughout the year. Its wrought iron fencing runs along the road for about three quarters of a mile and then dog legs to the left and runs another quarter mile down the aptly named Cemetery Road.

The headstones range from early 18th c. slate tablets that rise from the earth like black jagged teeth, to late 18th c. coffin-shaped above-ground vaults, to mid-19th c. Victorian obelisks and dour mausoleums, to 20th c. granite monoliths.  Among my favorite headstones are the ones with young girls perched on top, strewing flowers, or small dome-shaped stones covered with carved baskets of flowers and birds, or the simpler ones which merely have a small Victorian hand on the front, pointing upward.  ("He went thataway...")  

The family names run the gamut, from the everyday to local brahmins whose surnames still grace city buildings, tree-lined avenues and university buildings.  Despite being surrounded by a highway to the west, commercial real estate to the north and south, and neighborhoods to the east, the cemetery is so vast that once you've walked into the center you feel entirely cut off from anything but its own lovely peace and stillness. All the lanes (barely a car's width) run willy-nilly up and down the cemetery's hilly terrain and each is named after a different tree or shrub, which isn't surprising since there are hundreds of trees throughout the grounds. Towering oaks, sugar maples, gigantic bronze chestnuts, weeping willows. There is even a small lake in the center of the cemetery, just down a hill, and the most prestigious mausoleum on the grounds has the very best prospect of the sunset on summer nights. 

By far the saddest area—potters field—is a flat expanse of land that I discovered only a year or so ago, no doubt because of its location down a small dirt road behind a stand of swamp maples... as if to be buried without name or in penury was not shame enough, they had to be placed a little distant from those who had the advantage of income when they passed.  Here there are only small cobbles set in the earth with numbers on them, but despite its forbidding location, some friends and families have come by and placed personal items near these numbered markers:  teddy bears, flags, flowers, cardboard signs with names and birth dates noted in brightly colored paint.  One summer a performance artist placed a small silver bell at each stone, and as the wind blew over them the tinkling sound could be heard past the swamp maples, down the road, and out into the cemetery proper, as if calling out: 'We are here... we are not forgotten."

Along the iron fencing there are several gates where pedestrians can enter and simply roam the grounds. By the front gates there is an overseers cottage and a large rambling greenhouse. Originally intended for the groundskeepers, in recent years the greenhouse has generously opened its doors to the public. A master gardener runs things and is there 6 days a week, selling beautiful healthy plants for a fraction of what they're worth and seeing that all proceeds go to charity. On any given day throughout the year you will find long tables filled with whatever is appropriate for the season:  Pots of pointsettias to adorn Christmas homes and chapels, bedding plants for spring gardens or cascading baskets of hanging flowers for summer gazebos. Throughout the summer my neighbor and I will occasionally go down to look over what's available and invariably bringing home flats of blooms for our gardens. My favorites are always the coleus: copper-edged, black veined, frilly leafed beauties of every imaginable color including lime green, oxblood, and ochre.  

But on this day in late March we didn’t go to buy anything. This was simply our annual “first trip of the season” to let the long-missed scent of soil permeate our lungs and the 80 degree temperatures warm our winter-weary bones. As is usually the case during this first spring outing, the tables were filled with potted Easter lilies, their green-egded buds standing at attention atop tall rigid stems. Within the week they would unfurl like angelic trumpets, their alabaster petals curled back on themselves; but on that day they were still "cooking" in the soil-drenched heat, waiting, as we were, for Spring to arrive in earnest.

On our walk home we indulged our usual habit of reading headstones, saddened by the small stones in family plots that simply said "Baby", and trying to figure out the obscure connection between relatives and offspring, and the convoluted relationships between 2nd and 3rd wives and their seemingly much healthier husbands. ("Okay so she was his wife, but this was his child by that woman...")  On this particular day we came across a tomb with a nearly illegible verse poem on one side. She began to read it aloud but then stopped.

“House of cod?  Was he a fisherman??”

I leaned in and read the verse myself and then laughed outright.

Not house of cod....   House of GOD!?”

We studied another obelisk, clearly the resting place of a soldier, and it was apparently my turn to make a fool of myself. 

“What on earth is a SP.AM. war?" I asked, not noticing the periods. "This has to be over a hundred years old.... how could they have known about SPAM wars back then??”

She studied it for a minute and then turned to look at me.

“Spanish American War ... not SP.AM. !?!?”

Not all is dreary in a cemetery. Sometimes a bit of unexpected mirth lifts its face and winks at you and laughter rings out amidst the rows of the dear and departed.   I hope they didn’t mind.

02 May 2012

It's all about the packaging

I am a slave to packaging. Vintage, retro, romantic, foreign. I even go so far as to buy certain brands because of the packaging. And when a company reissues their vintage packaging, as Morton Salt did several years back, I'm all over it. 

 Occasionally I'll panic if I see that a company has "updated" or "improved" their packaging. This means I'll have to find a way to re-use the older package that I have, which in the case of some items is virtually impossible.  (How do you pour the NEW Bon Ami cleansing powder through the holes of the old Bon Ami can?)

Here are just a few of my weaknesses when it comes to packaging:

 Bon Ami
It's the chick on the front that gets me every time... and the primary colors

Clabber Girl Baking Powder
I don't throw out an empty can until I have the new one in my hands .. 
again, for fear that I may never find it again or the packaging will change

Watkins soaps and lotions
A product that dates back to 1868 and still relies on its "apothecary" style labeling

Smith's Rosebud Salve and Minted Rose lip gloss
Anything in a tin and I'm there with bells on but Smith's tins are particularly lovely

Flavigny Mints
 I have been buying these since forever and I reuse the tins for everything
from paper clips to pen nibs

Healthy Hoof and Bag Balm "cuticle" cream
Okay, so it's really for horse hooves and cow udders, not human cuticles, but it does work wonders on "gardener's" hands, and the container designs are adorable

  Neals Yard Remedies
Their flower waters, creams, and skin care products are wonderful
and the cobalt blue bottles are icing on the cake.

Wise Woman Herbals
I have their gardeners salve which contains calendula, comfry, Vitamin D,
and beeswax and works wonders on cuticles and small cuts.

Call me nuts but as long as something comes in a pretty container, I'm willing to try it.
(And when the product is wonderful, all the better!)