“It’s All About Me” Monday: The Book

I often refer to “my next life.”* I have plans for it. In my next life, I will start weaving sooner so I can learn more and be better at it. In my next life, I will study and work as an art conservator. And as an archaeologist. And I’ll write murder mysteries.

But I have a previous life, too.

And in my previous life, I made this:

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My previous life was as an academic, a college professor, and I did what academics do. I did research and published my analysis.

My field was rhetorical criticism, the analysis of public persuasion. Think of it as literary criticism but, instead of turning my critiques to literature, I endeavored to understand how humans influence, or persuade, each other in more explicit and strategic ways.

My particular area of interest was protest rhetoric and, even more specific, protest song

In some ways, the making I did then was similar to the making I do now and in more ways it was really different.

I loved aspects of it. I loved the subject matter and feeling like I was solving a puzzle when I better understood why a song like “We Shall Overcome” struck so many chords with so many people when other, similar, songs were soon forgotten.

I enjoyed all aspects of the analysis and the learning but I did not enjoy this kind of writing. Once I had the insights, I didn’t care about sharing them, except maybe in class, with my students.

The pressure to “publish or perish” rubbed me entirely the wrong way; it seemed to strengthen my will to resist. And, back then, in the distant past of my previous life, things like footnotes and indexes had to be sorted out laboriously, without help from computer programs . . .

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The whole time I was doing academic writing, I fantasized about writing murder mysteries. Murder mysteries set in an academic department at a comprehensive college in a Rust Belt city in the Northeast. Murder mysteries where the victims were pompous tenured professors . . .

The heroine of my never-to-be-written mysteries was a bright, untenured female assistant prof, super cute and stupendously popular with students, and with an incisive, agile mind, able to see patterns of speech and behavior that led to the murderers.

Sigh.

I hardly remember the me I was in this previous life, even though it’s only been 6 years since I retired and left it behind. Sometimes I come across the book and open it randomly and have no earthly memory of thinking those thoughts, let alone writing the words!

I guess it’s nice to know that this book is in reference libraries and people actually quote passages from it. I used to get a kick out of doing vanity searches in the Internet and seeing where the book showed up.

But I get much more of a kick out of the things I make now. They please me in a way my academic work never did. I’m not sure why that is, but it undeniably so.

So, it’s very clear to me what I need to be doing in my current life! Not what someone tells me I have to do, not what I am expected to do, but what I want and need and love to do.

But, enough about me! Let’s talk about you. How do you like my book?

And what about you? What will you do in your next life? Will it be the same as that which you’re doing now?


* A note—I don’t really think I get another life, as much as I love the idea. It’s more my way of saying “woulda, coulda, shoulda”!

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We Have So Much . . .

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Oodles of creative energy and desire. A strong desire, the impulse to make, to create . . .

And no resources. No thread, no yarn, no fabric. Nothing to turn my hands to. I can’t imagine . . .

A lot of my recent pleasure in this complicated world comes from my poor power to make something. When I get too overwhelmed by the news, I can turn away, pick up a rainbow of pretty threads, and play. And heal.

I’m reading a book that helps me realize how very, very lucky I am to have that outlet.

The book is Homefront and Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War, Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Zacek Bassett. It was published as a companion to a 2012 show that was organized by the now-defunct American Textile History Museum. The show traveled to other museums, including Shelburne Museum of Vermont, where Don and I saw the collection a couple years ago.

The show was spectacular, using “quilts, textiles, clothing, and other artifacts to connect deeply moving and insightful personal stories about the war, its causes, and its aftermath with the broader national context and public history.”

I didn’t write a blog post about this experience, mostly because photography wasn’t allowed and the impact of the show was visual—items included the hemp rope said to have been used to hang abolitionist John Brown, quilts made for soldiers to carry with them to battle, and all manner of personal textile items—knapsacks, clothing, and “housewives”—small sewing kits made for soldiers to carry with them in order to do their own sewing repairs.

Seeing these items moved me greatly and brought the reality of the Civil War to life for me, and I bought the well-written and beautifully illustrated book so I could learn more and have the photographs of the wonderful artifacts. I would recommend it to anyone interested in textiles, domestic social history, and human resilience.

I’ve been re-reading the book lately, in another time of American upheaval and uncertainty. Sometimes, as I read, I almost envy the women left home during the Civil War—they were full of a sense of purpose and knew exactly what they could do to make a difference during difficult times. They sewed, they knit, they wove, they quilted, and they sent the product of their labor to the soldiers whose lives were made substantially more bearable as a result.

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from the website of the American Textile History Museum, athm.org 

In these times that try one’s soul, as I turn my hand to weaving, sewing, quilting, I have no such sense of broader purpose. I am doing what I do for myself and my own state of mind. Making is a balm.

Yet, reading Homefront and Battlefield also encourages me to think about how lucky I am, and not just in the obvious ways—we are not engaged in a war with ourselves, I am not sending sons to battle to fight and kill their brothers. I am not burying the silver in the yard to hide it from the enemy.

I am lucky, too, in that in my need to make and to turn my hand to a job of work, I have unlimited power to do so and unlimited resources to draw from.

One of the points made in the book, and something that had never occurred to me is that, often during years of the Civil War, women had nothing–nothing— to work with.

As a result of any number of realities of war, there were no raw materials to be had. No cotton because it was all diverted to the war effort. No wool because sheep were killed to feed troops, rather than kept for their wool. A Georgia woman described the plight in her diary, saying, “There is no cloth to be had and no thread, no yarn—nor anything to do with. Time passes heavily under such circumstances” (164).

Indeed, it would.

No cloth? No thread? No yarn?? Just worry, and a frustrated desire to turn hands to fruitful labor, to make something that could help.

I have worry. But I have yarn and thread and fabric. I can sublimate my worry, my agitation, into something positive.

I read examples all the time of women channeling grief or anger or worry into their craft, turning to the soothing rhythm of knitting needles clicking or the needle and thread purring through cloth . . .

Can you imagine not having that outlet?

Advent, My Way #22

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The last of the seasonal books that I haul out for Christmas is an obscure one—How John Norton the Trapper Kept His Christmas, written by W.H.H. Murray, and published in 1890.

The book has a great deal of local appeal for those of us who live in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, plus I simply love the look of this book.

Author William Henry Harrison Murray was known as “Adirondack Murray”—during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he wrote books and gave numerous lectures that introduced people to, and popularized, the Adirondack Mountains. He is said to have coined the use of the word “vacation,” as opposed to the British “holiday,” with his urging of people to “vacate” the cities for the mountains.

And people listened. “Murray’s Fools,” as they were sometimes called, were entranced by the idea of a rustic mountain retreat and came in droves to this great wilderness on weekends, and many built seasonal “camps,” as well.

I’ll admit I haven’t read this book from start to finish. The dialogue—and there is a lot of it—is written in what is supposed to sound like a local dialect, probably French-Canadian—and reading it is like slogging through hip-deep snow. But I pick it up and admire the cover with its beautiful highlights of the drawings that illustrate passages of the book.

And I dip into the pages, reading at random, and have learned that John Norton, the trapper, has values to share with us all in the holiday season.

A cabin. A cabin in the woods. In the cabin a great fireplace piled high with logs, fiercely ablaze. On either side of the broad hearthstone a hound sat on his haunches, looking gravely, as only a hound in a meditative mood can, into the glowing fire . . .

At the table sat John Norton, poring over a book . . .

The whitened head of the old man was bowed over the broad page, on which one hand rested, with the forefinger marking the sentence. A cabin in the woods filled with firelight, a table, a book, an old man studying the book. This was the scene on Christmas Eve. Outside, the earth was white with snow, and in the blue sky above the snow was the white moon.

“It says here,” said the Trapper, speaking to himself, “it says here, ‘Give to him that lacketh, and from him that hath not, withhold not thine hand.

John Norton keeps his Christmas by providing food and, nearly as important, fun for an impoverished woman and her starving children. He takes time to twine wreaths of greens to adorn the pictures of “absent ones” on his walls and acknowledges, “I miss them so!” He sits before his fire and enjoys the company of his old hounds and the quiet of the wilderness.

In these ways, John Norton’s holiday is remarkable similar to many of ours, 125 years later—we miss loved ones who have died but hold them close in memory, we seek to help those in need, and we give conscious thanks for our secure hearth and home, no matter how simple.

Whether our Christmas days be many or few, when the great day comes round let us remember in good or ill fortun’, alone or with many, that Christmas, above all else, is the day for forgivin’ and forgittin’.

Advent, My Way #14

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A Christmas story with all the ingredients to make a reader like me happy:

Drama in the form of a good human, willing to sacrifice all to save his friends.

A setting in a place familiar to us, and beloved.

A storm at sea.

An heroic cat who saves the day.

And a happy ending at Christmastide.

Put it all together in a book with beautiful illustrations and it becomes the story of The Mousehole Cat, by Antonia Barber and illustrations by Nicola Bayley.

This is another book I put out at Christmas when I remember, and I am always glad when I remember, to take time to re-read this beautiful book and enjoy it. It’s a children’s book and yet . . .

The book is set in southwest England, in Cornwall, in the tiny village called Mousehole. That’s pronounced “Mowzle,” unless you’re an uninformed American tourist (don’t ask me how I know this. I just do.) This is a beautiful region; we’ve been there, to see the tiny harbor at Mousehole and the wild sea beyond the harbor wall.

As the story goes, old Tom, a fisherman, and his cat Mowzer live in the town. They live alone together, their families long grown and gone.

A fishing village, Mousehole flourishes until one year at Christmas when a great storm rages for days. Mowzer knows it’s the Great Storm-Cat brewing.

The fishing boats of Mousehole cannot leave the harbor and, as Christmas approaches, the people, not to mention the village cats, are starving.

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Tom tells Mowzer:

Mowzer, my handsome, it will soon be Christmas, and no man can stand by at Christmas and see children starve.

Someone must go fishing come what may, and I think it must be me. It cannot be the young men, for they have wives and children and mothers to weep for them if they do not return. But my wife and parents are dead long since and my children are grown and gone.

Because it was the same for Mowzer, and because, if old Tom did not come back, she would not care to carry on without him, Mowzer decides to join old Tom on his boat.

Mowzer and Tom set off and the Great Storm-Cat toys with them, plays with them, batters them, as a cat with a mouse, swatting the small boat around, threatening them . . . and enjoying the game.

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At the critical moment, though, when the Great Storm-Cat comes in for the kill, Mowzer starts to feel “a sudden, strange sadness for him” in his loneliness, and sings to him, and purrs.

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And her purring rose like a hymn to home above the noise of the Great Storm-Cat’s howling . . .

Puzzled, he paused in his howling, bending his ear to catch the strange sound. It seemed to him that he had once heard such a song long before, when he was no more than a Storm-Kitten . . .

Then the Great Storm-Cat began to purr with Mowzer, and as the soft sound grew, the winds waned and the waves weakened.

Night fell and the little boat sailed back across a slackening sea . . .

Mowzer and old Tom return to their village and find all the people and cats keeping vigil for them.

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They come back with a hold full of fish. On the night before Christmas Eve, the townspeople cook and fry the fish and bake half a hundred star-gazy pies.

“Then, people and cats, they feasted together, until the hunger was no more than a memory.”

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Sigh. I love a happy ending. And a sensitive, sweet cat who uses her purr to good effect.

This isn’t a traditional Christmas story. No Christ child, no manger, no Santa, no snow, no red-nosed reindeer.

But it still honors the best of humans (and cats!) at Christmas–community, compassion for the less fortunate, sacrifice, peace, plenty, and thanksgiving.

Do you know a more beautiful book for this time of year?

I Get It. Do You? 

IMG_6452Sometimes it seems to me that there are two kinds of people in the world. No, not early birds and night owls. Not “glass is half full” versus “glass is half empty.” Not progressives and conservatives.

I’m talking about the folks who love shopping at garage/rummage/tag/yard/jumble sales and those who don’t.

Some people just don’t get it—they don’t understand the thrill of the hunt. They don’t know the sense that, sometimes, you don’t know what you want until you see it, that treasures are waiting to be discovered.

My mom and I get it. During summer, we go out “saling” a couple of days a week.

We went out this weekend, too. Our range was limited because many of our usual haunts were still haunted by the specter of escaped convicts.

We did NOT have a stellar weekend with lots of fabulous finds but we had a handful of very nice hours together and I got a few items that make me super happy.

Like this pretty book, published in 1926, and titled “Birds in Rhyme.”

I love the illustrations in the book, colorful images of a number of birds of North America.

I love the poems that accompany each bird and summarize its traits.IMG_6446 IMG_6449I love that the birds’ songs are conveyed by musical notes on a scale.

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I really love the cover, everything about it. I love the bright, saturated, complementary blue/green and red/orange. I love the stylized graphics in the Arts and Crafts style.

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And I LOVE the fact that the cover just happens to match my husband’s current weaving project!

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This one-dollar purchase made my day! What else would give me so much for so little?

So, where do you stand on the subject of garage sales? Do you get it? Or not?

Spring Senses: The Taste of Maple, in a Scone

IMG_6245It’s early spring in the North Country of upstate New York and one thing says spring here, more than mercurial temperature swings and dirty, muddy snow. One thing says spring even more than news of ice fishermen having to be rescued from the melting lake.

Maple. Maple anything and maple everything—that says spring.

In my continuing yearly celebration of all things maple, I offer to you possibly the best recipe for scones you’ll ever try.

It’s also probably the least healthy recipe for scones you’ll ever see but, really, how many scones could you eat in a day?

Really, that many? Me, too!

My recipe comes directly from The New Best Recipe, by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine. This cookbook is a compendium of recipes for popular foods, the kinds of foods for which everyone has a recipe and none of the recipes are the same.

When there are 1000 recipes for chocolate chip cookies, for instance, how do we know which one to use?

I turn to Cook’s Illustrated. The editors comprehensively test these multiple approaches to a give recipe and seek to provide the definitive recipe for such items as pasta with bolognese sauce and macaroni salad and, yes, chocolate chip cookies.

I love this cookbook because, in a very systematic way, it identifies what the cooks were aiming for and then provides details of the different tweaks they made to achieve their goals. This all just really makes my cake bake, literally and figuratively!

The Cook’s Illustrated goal for oatmeal scones was “to pack the chewy nuttiness of oats into a moist and tender breakfast pastry, one that wouldn’t require a firehose to wash down the crumbs” (714). They provide variations for cinnamon raisin oatmeal scones and oatmeal scones with dried cherries and hazelnuts but . . .

It’s spring in the North Country of upstate New York and we’re talking maple here! These scones are tender and amazing, and so very maple.


Glazed Maple-Pecan Oatmeal Scones

from The New Best Recipe

Ingredients

1 ½ cups rolled oats (4 ½ ounces) or quick oats

½ cup chopped pecans

¼ cup whole milk

¼ cup heavy cream

¼ cup maple syrup

1 large egg

1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (7 ½ ounces) (such as Gold Medal or Pillsbury)

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon table salt

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut into ½” cubes

For glaze

3 tablespoons maple syrup

½ cup confectioner’s sugar

Instructions

  1. Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 375 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Spread oats and pecans evenly on one baking sheet and toast in oven until fragrant and lightly browned, 7 to 9 minutes; cool on wire rack. Increase oven temperature to 450 degrees. When oats are cooled, measure out and reserve 2 tablespoons for dusting the work surface.
  1. Whisk milk, cream, 1/4 cup maple syrup, and egg in medium bowl until incorporated; remove and reserve 1 tablespoon to small bowl to brush scones.
  1. Pulse flour, baking powder, and salt in food processor until combined, about four 1-second pulses. Scatter cold butter evenly over dry ingredients and pulse until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, twelve to fourteen 1-second pulses. Transfer mixture to medium bowl and stir in cooled oats. Using rubber spatula, fold in liquid ingredients until large clumps form. Continue mixing by hand until a mass forms.
  1. Dust work surface with half of reserved oats and flour (if needed), turn dough out onto work surface, and dust top with remaining oats. Gently pat into 7-inch circle about 1 inch thick.  Cut dough into 8 wedges and set on parchment-lined baking sheet, about 2 inches apart. Brush surfaces with reserved egg mixture and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar. Bake until golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes; cool scones on baking sheet on wire rack 5 minutes, then remove scones to cooling rack and cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes.
  1. When scones are cooled, whisk maple syrup and confectioner’s sugar until combined; drizzle glaze over scones.

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My Kind of Book

It’s a book.

IMG_3987It’s a vintage book.IMG_3989

It’s a vintage book about textiles.

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It’s a vintage book about how to make textiles by hand.

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It’s as if we belong together!

“With her knowledge she can combine her imagination and ingenuity to create new patterns or adapt old ones and so give color and meaning to modern life.”