Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Richness of Quilts!

Infinite Variety Quilt Exhibit of Joanna Rose's Treasures


Today on the Harplist, Ray Pool posted about Infinite Varieties, a wonderful exhibit of 651 red and white quilts, collected by Mrs. Joanna S. Rose. Spanning three centuries, they were displayed in an armory in Manhattan from March 25-30, as an 80th birthday present from her husband. Not only will you be able to see them, but you can also listen to Ray's beautiful harp music, three pieces from his "Crystal Spring" album and published collection. And this is what they said to me:

           Red & White

Against the darkness hang squares, rectangles of cloth
stars    snowflakes   stripes   stylilzed flowers   slanted linked chains
   geometric shapes   a spinster and her wheel, the spindle full
--someone had to spin  the thread, drawing up the pluck,
          winding it smooth and even,
as someone had to dye it in a kettle, adding the mordant to fix the color,
as someone wrung out and dried the cloth, made it into
           clothing, curtains, household goods.

Three hundred years hang there, lighted from above, yet so much more:
do those who came know? Do they sense the ghostly hands
           of all the women of those years,
who cut up the scraps for yet one more use,
      one more attempt to keep those they loved warm?
Mothers, grannies, aunts, daughters, neighbors, friends,
whether gathered around the frame,
or one lone woman arranging
--on a bed? On the table? On a board?--pieces of a petticoat,
a wedding-dress, a baby's first gown, a husband's shirt-tail,
this bit here, and that over there, until it satisfied something deep within:
yes, just this way.
Did she stitch her longing for children,
    for a husband gone to seek work or fight?
    The grief of loss, hope for crops and change and birth?
Did she hurry through chores and dishes and needful mending,
eager for a few minutes
in her clean "company" apron,
to stitch by candle or firelight or sunshine in a window?
Did she put a pricked finger in her mouth,
    afraid it'd stain brown against the red?
Did she smooth the white part, carefully tufting,
swirling stitches to hold batting and backing
against the quilt-top? Did she heat the iron on the stove, pressing smooth
before folding it away in a chest or laid on the bed?
How many slept under them? How many dreams and prayers hover above them?
Red is warmer cloth, they say. It stands for bravery, for blood, for love.
White is pure, cool, unblemished. Clouds and the froth of waves, and snow.



Detail--see the swirl of stitching?
  Delight in the crafting, delight in the doing, delight in the seeing,
all shared with so many
last of all because Joanna saw and kept their beauty, whitely
now
a gift to her and all those coming from her husband's love

Red and white, white and red
will any decide to try their own?

                                           Crystal music floats in the air
Harp & angel quiltblock
not part of the exhibit!
springing from delight         
within the heart, within the stitches,
a cornucopia of caring
down the years

1st draft,
March 30, 2011

Oh, the stories in quilts and other crafted items around us!


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Friday, March 25, 2011

The Truth of Mountains

This morning I read  the latest post, "The truth behind the truth," on the Story Route blog of Canadian storyteller Cathryn Wellner (she also has two others, Catching Courage and Crossroads). She mentioned an email that Winfried Dulisch had sent to Liz Weir, who then forwarded it to Cathryn, about storytellers knowing "the truth behind the truth we other people think we know."

I won't paraphrase her entire post--I hope you'll enjoy it for yourself!--but I am going to share the link that Dayna from Bella Coola sent her for Singing Our Treasures Back to Life. Please scroll down to the bottom of that and then up, so you can read the posts in order. They are well worth it!

Castle Clinton, Battery Park,
where my paternal grandparents came
Years ago, when my family still lived in northwestern New Jersey, John and I would go visit them for a week every summer. We'd spend one day down at the Shore because he's an ocean person, and one day we'd drive the 67 miles east and slightly south in to New York City, each year choosing something different to explore. One year, we took the Staten Island Ferry to the Statue of Liberty (even though our families did not enter this country there; they arrived in the 1700s and 1800s before it was established).

The following year, we took the ferry to Battery Park (where my family came from Wales and Germany and France and probably, earlier, Scotland). We parked the car there and walked to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Indians in the Aaron Burr Customs Building. I remember exhibits of painted shirts and ledger drawings; the Mesingw costume, just like the one we'd been told about by a guide at at Waterloo Village's  Lenape village recreation outside Hackettstown. Most moving of all was a huge circle of many styles of moccasins made by different tribes, from tiny beaded Plains tribes' toddlers' size to soft high desert Hopi, Navajo and Pueblo adults to furred boots worn by Inuits and other far northern tribes' hunters.

And I had a feeling I had  first had when I was 11 years old. We had gone to Mesa Verde, afterwards stopping at a visitor's center/museum. Wandering around, I came upon a mummified woman, her limbs compacted in a cross-legged position, skin stretched across her bones, strands of long hair framing her face, thin fingers like bundled sticks, and from that display case such sorrow emanated that it caught me by the throat. Once I blinked hard enough to read the placard underneath, it said  that her body had been found in a garbage pit below one of the cliff-houses, and she had been brought there.

On the one hand, seeing her made the Anasazi, the Ancestral Pueblo people, vividly alive to me, more than the empty rooms we had climbed up to and the kivas we had looked down into. But on the other, I was filled with a profound desire that she be permitted to rest as her people had believed they should be. Egyptian mummies and artifacts of any culture arouse the same dichotomy within me. Is it respectful for her to be displayed like that? I didn't think so then, so many years ago, and I don't now, even though I'm very grateful for insights into those cultures.

So many people have told me that they hated history classes in school...almost as many as tell me they hated English class when they learn that I was an English major. I am baffled by both responses, although I suppose that math majors can't understand why I cringe at the mere thought of numbers....But I fell in love with history when I was about 6 or 7. Mother gave me one of Marguerite De Angeli's books, Elin's Amerika, about a little girl whose Swedish family had emigrated to New Sweden in the Delaware Valley, to a small log cabin built by her father, and how lonely she was without any playmates. I could understand that, because no matter how many times we moved while I was growing up, we always seemed to go to neighborhoods without any children my age. Knowing that we weren't far from the Delaware, I asked Mother if we could go find Elin so we could play together. Gently she explained to me that Elin had lived a long, long time ago in the 17th Century, while I lived in the 20th, so no, I couldn't. But I did realize from that book that history is simply about people, that we have many more things in common than we have differences, and I have loved history ever since.

Allamuchy-Panther Valley, looking toward the Delaware Water Gap

I grew up in the Muscanetcong Mountains, once the homeland of the Lenape tribe. By the time my family came there, the Lenape were long gone out west or up north to Canada, leaving behind place names like Pequest and Lopatchong, Netcong and Lacawanna, Succasunna and Allamuchy, Rockaway and Parsippany, to name a few that still sing. My father told me about his adventures as a boy along the Navesink to the south in Monmouth County, and sang about the banks of the old Raritan. I first lived in Peapack, before we moved to Budd Lake, a much simpler name than the Kant-ka-wi-anning of an earlier time. But I know that I love the long low lines of the mountains and the narrow paths of their trails and rivers the Lenape had traveled as much as they did, if in a different time. I know that their families grieved over having to leave as much as my Hebridean forebears grieved over the brutal Clearances the largely absentee landlords like the Laird of Barra, used to scatter them over the world. Those places are as much a part of me as the shape of my hands and the color of my eyes, which come from a small archipelago with names like Barra, Vatersay, Berneray, Pabbay, Sandray, Mingulay, Flodday, Lingay, Muldonaich and Uineasan.

The 4 smallest Barra Isles:
Flodday, Lingay, Muldonaich & Uineasan

I describe myself as a Celtic teller, the Celtic nations comprising Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall in England, Brittany in France, and some say Galicia in Spain. I specialize in the Scottish and Welsh tales, myths and legends Granny told me as I grew up.

Several years ago, the Society of Contemporary Craft decided to have an exhibit of seven Native American artists, and they invited several local storytellers. We were each to choose some of the artworks, and choose  Native American tales to tell about them, leading groups of people around the gallery. It was a nice change from doing Celtic tales, and after I researched the tribes and stories I felt best fitted the artworks I had chosen, I got in touch with Three Rivers Indian Council to make sure that those stories were appropriate, that I as a non-Native American was allowed to tell them. None of the stories were Lenape. Much as I love the ones I have found and learned, I don't tell them because I have yet to be given permission. To me, it is a matter of being respectful and courteous.

Sometimes people ask me if I will tell a feud tale. There are many of them in Scottish history. The clans lost under Prince Charlie at Culloden in part because old animosities divided them, kept them from working together and devising strategies and plans that might have prevailed against the superior firepower and manpower of the Sassanach, the English.

I rarely do tell any. Sometimes I will, if the actions of one man or woman illustrate their courage, their adherence to the laws of hospitality and honor that we are still proud of. If, like "The Calf and the Snowball," the story shows a clever use of kindness that preserves dignity, then it should be heard. But to detail atrocity--and every culture, every war, has them--merely to titillate debased emotions of superiority and division? Where is the truth in that? Oh, it is part of the truth--but we can see that on the news every night, or read it in the paper. But it is only part, not all, of the truth of who and what we are as humans on this planet.

I am a Celt. I am also a convinced Quaker, in the tradition of the Religious Society of Friends. My failures as a spiritual Friend are many. But like those of many other cultures, such as the Navajo's Beauty Way, or the six young Heiltsuk men who went from Bella Bella to New York City to sing and dance and drum and tell their artifacts back into life at the museum, and like my great-great-granny Catriona, I begin my day by thanking God, Dia , for Her blessings and mercies.

Along with a wonderful legacy of folk- and fairytales, myths, legends, folklore, poetry, plantlore, ballads, hymns, prayers, incantations, and proverbs, Great-Great-Granny Catriona transmitted a tradition of living lightly, interacting in a thrifty yet rich use of the gifts around us, and a proud joy in creating a proper, harmonious life where we are.

She began her day after that first prayer by a lustration prayer[1]:

           
I am bathing my face
In the mild rays of the sun...

Sweetness be in my mouth,
Wisdom be in my speech,
The love the fair Mary gave her Son
 Be in the heart of all flesh for me.

Then the making of the fire in order to cook:

           I will kindle my fire this morning  
           In presence of the holy angels of heaven,
           In presence of Ariel of the loveliest form,
           In presence of Uriel of the myriad charms,
           Without malice, without jealousy, without envy,
           Without fear, without terror of any one under the sun
           But the Holy Son of God to shield me.
                  Without malice, without jealousy, without envy,
      Without fear, without terror of any one under the sun
      But the Holy Son of God to shield me.

          God, kindle Thou in my heart within,
          A flame of love to my neighbour,
          To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all,
          To the brave, to the knave, to the thrall,
          O Son of the loveliest Mary,
          From the lowliest thing that liveth,
          To the Name that is highest of all.
        O Son of the loveliest Mary,
        From the lowliest thing that liveth,
       To the Name that is highest of all.

During the day, there were prayers and work songs for milking, churning, all the household tasks to bless the family, reaping and fishing, seasonal ones, a life interwoven with her faith and the environment around er. Before bedtime, smooring (banking) the fire for the night:
      
I am smooring the fire
            As the Son of Mary would smoor;
            Blest be the house, blest be the fire 
            Blest be the people all.....

and finally, one of the earliest I learned:

           God, give charge to Thy blessed angels
          To keep guard around this stead to-night,
             A band sacred, strong, and steadfast,
          That will shield this soul-shrine from harm.
            Safeguard Thou, God, this household to-night,
          Themselves and their means and their fame
            Deliver them from death, from distress, from harm,
          From the fruits of envy and of enmity.
           Give Thou to us, O God of peace,
          Thankfulness despite our loss,
           To obey Thy statutes here below,
         And to enjoy Thyself above.

I struggle with living with being less cumbered with things, especially books and papers, and living harmoniously. There is so much violence in the world, in my thoughts. John O'Donohue, the Irish poet and mystic, speaks of "the mountain behind the mountain." Some interpret that as the ideal. But I am more an Aristotlian than a Platonist; I am in a state of becoming. When I am quiet, I can hear the truth. When I am close to my mountains, I can see that truth a bit more clearly.

I wish you the harmony of truth.

I wish you mountains.


[1] You can find other lovely prayers like these at Ortha nan Gaidheal / Carmina Gadelica

Monday, March 21, 2011

Harp Grove

Harp Grove of Western PA

The day before yesterday, Saturday, was the third Saturday of the month, and that meant a Harp Grove session! I set off for Joyce Emery’s house in Crafton, because she was hosting the March meeting of the Harp Grove of Western PA, the Celtic harp ensemble we belong to. This is a (slightly) more formal version of an earlier harp circle, and was founded by Faith Stenning, Joyce and me in 1990 or thereabouts—I was an officer because I was the only member of the International Society of Folk Harpers & Craftsmen (ISFHC) at the time, and we wanted to organize as a chapter. We mostly play Scottish, Irish and Welsh music, and we get together in each other’s homes the third Saturday of the month at 2 pm to play together for a few hours, followed by tea and goodies; the host provides the tea. So I stopped off at Whole Foods to pick up my contribution, which today was assorted hammataschen. Not what I had expected to take, with us doing Irish music in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, but they are sooo good! 

Ft. Pitt Bridge over the Mon & Downtown Pgh
The love/hate thing about Pittsburgh topography is that while on the one hand, the hills, valleys and rivers make some beautiful scenery, on the other, it means that the old ‘Burgh adage that “You can’t get there from here,” is often all too true. Add to that geography an aging infrastructure, cash-flow problems, the beginning of construction season , and pot-hole season yielding a bumper crop after this winter, getting from Point A to Point B can be an exercise in creativity, flexibility, and stamina. Route 28 was out, because part of it is shut down for yet more construction, so I am currently avoiding that side of the Allegheny River.  I chose to go up through Oakland from Shadyside and across the Birmingham Bridge into South Side, and out West Carson Street. I could have gone over the Fort Pitt Bridge, but in my opinion, whoever designed that must have been a cousin of the idiot who inflicted the peculiar outbound cloverleaf at the Parkway East on Squirrel Hill right before the tunnels upon an unwary public. Ft. Pitt is a great introduction to Downtown, coming from the Airport through the Fort Duquesne tunnels, but going from the opposite end outbound, approaching on the Parkway East as it curves up onto the bridge (from the top right in the picture) means that you have to cross two lanes diagonally to (my) right  to take the off ramp (down in the lower left of the picture out towards Crafton, or you find yourself going through the tunnels. I-just-don’t-like-doing-it; I’m always worried that someone won’t be paying attention trying to go diagonally left wile I'm going diagonally right and plow into me.

Remarkably, I had almost all green lights going through the South Side flats. (100 years ago, when they were building railroads, they tended to put them on the flat parts by the rivers—and the mills, who depended heavily on the rivers to transport heavy goods like ore and steel—and roads were put up on and over the ridges.) I noticed a sign indicating a detour up onto Mt. Washington, which is what the Ft. Duquesne tunnels go through, via Sycamore because of work on McArdle Roadway, and spared the unwary out of towner taking it some pity. Sycamore is one of the seven steepest streets in the city, and also winding. When my dad went down it for the first time, at one point he thought the road had dropped out from beneath the wheels, because he couldn’t see it….When Pittsburgh used to host a big bicycle race, they’d go up it fourteen times—demonstrating that they were pros!

On Carson, I was cruising along, passing the Mon Incline on one side and Station Square on the other, going down the O-hi-o…and after passing under the Ft. Pitt, seeing the West End Bridge coming up on the right over to North Side, I braced myself for the Next Big Headache.

I mentioned the railroad being on the flats. In fact, there are two lines there; one by the Mon and the Ohio, that is right on the water…and another running along the base of Mt. Washington. On the south end of the West End Bridge, the landward one is elevated on a mostly solid base. This is interrupted by  two openings, for what used to be the West End Circle, a roundabout dating from simpler days of much less traffic when drivers went at slower speeds, that is complicated by the railroad bisecting it in the middle. Another design marvel! The circle has been a headache for just about everybody over there for decades, and periodically, Penn DOT takes another crack at improving it. This of course entails mess, detours, closings, lane changes, barriers, and an almost constant blue cloud of curses hanging overhead. Eventually everyone gets used to the current version and the construction mess is cleared away, until the next go-around. We have been in one of these for what seems like forever but is probably more like a couple of years. My thought processes went like this:

I don’t want to go in the right lane or I’ll end up going across to North Side. I don’t want to get into the right lane too soon past the bridge or I’ll end up going to McKees Rocks. I don’t want to be in the left lane, because then I’ll turn to the left too soon (first opening) and end up heading towards the airport. I’m not sure when to get in the middle lane—is that a middle lane, or a snare and a delusion? Is the sign indicating Crafton misleading or right?—to take the second, farther opening to get on Steuben Street which is what I want, to take me to Crafton, and it’s 1:36, we start at 2, and I need to tune once I get there.

So I turned, trusting the sign, once I got by a humongous truck on my left…and found that oh, curses, I am now headed towards the airport….

Luckily, it’s not a divided road, so I was able to do a u-turn, back under the underpass the opposite way, go left, then left again (after a big SUV decided it didn’t want to come snack on my aged PT cruiser after all) through the overpass's far opening, and onto Steuben, bumping over a spur line, and almost limp with relief, went onward, beginning the climb upwards. “Onward and upward” applies to a great deal of Pittsburgh’s terrain, come to think of it….

To my astonishment, I was the first one there! Parked, rejoiced in the purple and white crocuses creeping out under her fence and the lilac bush beginning to bud, and began extricating myself and stuff from the car: water bottle and purse from the front seat, set down by the rear tire, before opening the back door for the rest:

          --put the bag of harp stuff by the bottle, along with a string bag of hammantaschen;
          --pushed back the folding cart on the seat (with which I had transported the whole kit and kaboodle downstairs to the garage from home) back to give me room to
          --push aside the space blanket swathing the harp from sunlight (I am compulsive about taking my harp, Dreamsinger’s, safety seriously. Heat can severely damage it by softening the glue that partly holds it together) and lift the harp in its grey softshell case up and out of where I had it nestled between the seats. I lifted the long strap over my head so it was diagonally over my shoulder, and straightened. Gathering up everything else, I managed to shut the door and moved through the gateway and up the path, up onto the back porch and succeeded in opening the back door without hitting anything.

It’s not that my midsized harp is all that heavy—only 14 lbs. But it’s a rather awkward shape for my short size, and the harpbag is what's heavy. Most of that is from the folded music-stand; the rest is from the folding stool I set it on to play, and the bag of assorted bits (snap-on shelf for the music-stand, tuning wrench, tuner, spare set of strings, pencils, etc., and several binders, folders and comb-bound books of music.) At some point, most harperists vow that in another life, they will come back as piccolo players. Some even mean it at the time!

I handed Joyce the hammataschen, put my harp and bag in the living-room, and took the empty case and my jacket to her front hall, which doubles as her office and a sitting-area. Then Verna arrived and soon others followed, and for a while there was a happy hubbub while we opened up music-stands, Joyce and Melanie handed out copies of music, tuned our harps, caught up on who’s been doing what since last time and who was coming, and generally sorted ourselves out.

Joyce’s home has a small living-room, but we can and did fit in several: Gene, our token male and only professional harpist was on the sofa with his little Mideastern harp (which Jeff Stone of Stone Creek Instruments put levers on after Gene restrung it) in his lap; Melanie had her big Heartland harp next to Verna and her large Kortier; Carol  brought her Dusty 26, leaving her Dusty Ravenna at home (the only difference between mine and Joyce’s, and Carol’s [besides the wood on all three] is that hers has screw-on legs. Joyce plays hers set on a little cut-down table.; like me, she plays a Dusty Strings FH-26. Next to Joyce was Frances, who also left her larger harp at home but brought her green Ravenna, and there was just room for Margie, a newcomer who has yet to get a harp, to sit in a wing-chair and listen.

We enthusiastically introduced our harps and ourselves, and deluged her with information, after starting with “Brian Boru’s March Parts I, II, and III”, an oldie but goodie that we haven’t done in years. Several still had it in muscle-memory; it didn’t sound too badly, even though as usual we tended to speed up. When did we play it before? Back when I was sloooowly picking out melodies, wondering if I'd ever use my left hand...and this time I was mostly doing drone chords.

The nice thing about a group like ours, (and I’m sorry we didn’t say so to Margie), is that while we aren’t all on the same level, each of us can do something. A brand-new harper can play the first note in each measure, or chords, some only play the melody, some play the bass, some play both. Nobody gets upset by mistakes (well, I’ve been known to get thoroughly disgusted with myself for not having practiced sufficiently, but that’s standard and my own fault). What I really mean is that our goal is to have a good time together playing the instrument we love, and we always meet that goal.

“My Little Welsh Home” sneaked into our Irish day, but that’s one of those we all like. As Joyce said, it’s not difficult but sounds wonderfully harpy. That sounded good, because we all play it so much. And it’s one of those handy little tunes that fits into so many programs. We’ve changed the name on occasion to “Our Wee Scots Hame,” “Our Small Irish Cottage,” and once Frances called it “Our Holy House” when it was played in church.

We moved on to Judy Aslakson’s lovely arrangement of “The Water Is Wide,” which in Scotland is called “Waly, Waly,” but like so many tunes has traveled and changed names. Gene was wondering why she put the melody in the Harp II part and the accompaniment in Harp I. I was doing drone chords on that as well, so I didn’t care; I was too busy being happy about doing D7 chords more easily. A small victory, but I'll take what I can get! Not all the playing was ensemble; Verna, Melanie and Carol played Turlough O’Carolan’s “Fannie Po’er,” Frances played “Danny Boy,” Gene played an aria from Puccini’s La Boheme, and two songs from Finnegan’s Rainbow: “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” and “Look to the Rainbow.” As a group, we slowly sight-read our way through “A Fig for a Kiss,” a slip jig, and “Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore,” which Melanie handed out and played for us first. We’ve tried “A Fig” before; I think Sue Richards gave it to us at one of her workshops at the Ligonier Highland Games, but Jennifer Pratt-Walter’s “Paddy” was new.

We were almost ready to break for tea and goodies when Faith Stenning, and Lorraine and her toddler son Darren Farnof arrived. They were harpless, so some of us played a little more, and I think Faith borrowed Frances' for one tune.

Darren is 17 months old, a happy little guy who saw that Gene’s harp was just his size  when it was set down on the floor, and he wanted to play it. After all, he’s used to Lorraine’s harp, and budding harpers should be encouraged! He was greatly diverted by Gene's opening and closing the bottom part of his music-stand tripod--what was that slivery spidery thing? And how long is it since I noticed how cool that motion of accordioning in and out can be?

Several kinds of tea, crackers and spreads, devilled eggs and salmon, the hammataschen, cookies…all presided over by some daffodils in Joyce’s big kitchen amid conversation, and after reluctantly packing up, we went home.

It was a lovely day! Personally I was pleased that in addition to playing chords I had done some fingering with my right hand on the newer pieces (mostly keeping up), was quicker on recognizing note patterns, that we met a possible new harper, and that I’d had the chance to play with several friends. This isn’t everyone in the group, so hopefully at our next meeting in April, more will be able to come. It'll be good to see them again.


Smithfield Street Bridge
The sun was still shining brightly as I crossed my favorite Pittsburgh bridge, the Smithfield Street one. Allegheny County has more bridges than anywhere else, even Venice, and to me, there is something very aesthetically pleasing  in its lenticular arches. Oakland seemed relatively uncrowded coming back, as I made resolutions about practicing more….and I arrived home a little after 6.

I love proverbs, especially Scottish ones. Here is one of my favorite music ones:

Everything will perish save love and music.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

In the Neighborhood....on World Storytelling Day


Today would have been Fred Rogers' 83rd birthday.   

I had never heard of him, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, or WQED, the PBS station that broadcasts it, until I was 20. That was the summer after the death of my friend and college roommate Betsy's mother, Elaine Ogden. Instead of going home to New Jersey and getting a job to save up for the next semester of school in the fall, I came to stay with her and her dad, Ben, out in Penn Hills. This was so that I could see a knee specialist for an injury I'd had in February. After my first appointment, I found myself on crutches and in a cast from hip to ankle for the next three months.

That drastically cut down on what I could do! Betsy had casually mentioned Daniel S. Strip-ED (never "striped," said as one syllable) Tiger, and Josie Carey and The Children's Corner in talking about shows Betsy had watched as a child growing up in Pittsburgh, but I really hadn't paid much attention. Late one hot afternoon she said, "Let's watch Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood--you're going to love X-cape the Owl!"

X wasn't on that show, but when I did see her, I did love her....I love owls. I was also charmed by Mr. Rogers' gentle, genine caring about his audience.

And, well, that was that, except for occasionally catchng a glimplse as I flipped channels over the years. I do remember a co-worker once telling me that she was late because she had agreed to walk a friend's dog--and was near QED, having combined that task with an errand, dog on its leash, when she realized that she'd locked herself out of her car. A voice behind her asked, "Are you having a problem?" It was Fred, and he took her inside QED to use a phone to call Triple A. "He was so nice!" she kept saying. What might have been a vexing incident had been transformed for her by his niceness.

I liked that story. So often, many celebrities seem to belie the original reason for our liking them, almost as if the center of who they are becomes consumed by the image that is hyped until they are reduced to a brittle outer shell. But Fred wasn't a Celebrity in that sense at all.

We moved into our home in 1993, on a hot May day. Partway through the afternoon, as I waited for another load of our possessions to arrive, there was a knock on the door. A smiling woman held out a big pitcher of freshly made iced tea and a stack of disposable cups. "Welcome!" she ssid. "I'm Leslie. My husband Don and I live next door."

Don was Chef Brockett--and Fred's best friend for almost forty years. Don Brockett was also an actor in almost every movie filmed in Pittsburgh from Flashdance to Houseguest, half of the hilarious duo Brockett & Barbara, and produced many industrial films and annual revues, Forbidden Pittsburgh. He was a very creative man who collected Noah's Arks and Santa Clauses, and painted naive art, referring to himself as "Grandpa Moses." Occasionally, I'd see him sitting on a corner of his balcony, painting. I am proud to say that we have two of his, a seascape and a religious painting, hanging in our living-room.

Every Christmas, Don and Leslie threw a big party in our building's Party Room, which he also often used for rehearsals, and everyone in the building was invited along with just about everyone else they knew. That first year, my husband, John McDowell and I went in, and when we greeted Leslie, she said, "You have to meet Fred!" Don said the same thing, and a minute later, Leslie introduced us to him. As he shook hands, he said, "I was so sorry to hear about your cat." We knew that the Brocketts were cat-lovers, and we had recently lost Star, one of the two Greatest Cats in the World, just before Thanksgiving. I was surprised that he knew about it. John told him that he'd seen a little Maine Coon female cat at the Pet Pad, but Star had been my cat, so we weren't quite ready yet. Then, of course, someone else wanted to speak with him, and we sat down wtih other neighbors.

One year later, at the next Christmas party, I was going through the buffet line when I heard a familiar voice behind me: "Hello, Barra! Did you and John ever get another cat?"

It was Fred. I was amazed that he remembered our names and the details of the only conversation we'd had, with all the other people he must have met in the intervening year! That kind of memory--and warmth--is a gift.

"Yes, we did," I said. "We got the Maine Coon John fell in love with, and named her Bride [pronounced breed], the Scottish version of St. Bridget--except she's not saintly! But she is keeping our other cat Finnie company."

That was the last party. Don died of a sudden heart attack in 1995, and Leslie established the Don Brockett Memorial Scholarship to benefit students majoring in theatre at Point Park and Chatham Universities..

If you come to Pittsburgh, the set of his house from the show is now one of the permanent exhibits at the Children's Museum, and you also go see a statue of Fred on the North Shore. Mr.McFeeley, the Speedy Delivery mailman, did a presentation about Family Communications, Fred's company, when the National Storytelling Network had its national conference here in 2006.

As a Presbyterian minister in broadcasting for children, Fred's charge included teaching them the importance of stories as a means of learning and understanding the world around and inside them, and in telling their own stories.

Today is also World Storytelling Day.

The theme for this year is "Water," and considering the disaster in Japan, and efforts to help them, if you hear of any storytelling events meant to benefit such efforts as a fundraiser in the next weeks or months, I hope that you will contribute--and listen!

In keeping with their theme, here is a story about the tsunami that hit Indonesia a few years ago: The authorities had a mammoth task to check on its 17,508 islands and over 238 million people afterwards. That's why it took over a week for anyone to go to a remote island where a very small tribe lived. As they brought their boat into shore, they could see that the village was badly damaged. But as they searched, they didn't find any bodies or livestock carcasses. Going inland, they found all 96 Onge (and their animals) up in the highlands. How had they known? Elders told them that it is part of their lore to observe ocean conditions. Old people had noticed changes in the sea, and their traditional stories told them what to expect and what to do. This was true of some other tribes as well.

Andaman Islands, Indonesia

Please share a story with someone today!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

National Crafts Month & National Women's HIstory Month

I’ve never used a glue-gun, nor decoupaged anything. I don’t bead, although my friends Linda and Betsy create works of art in that medium that I am delighted to wear. 8>)

But one day when I was four years old, Gramma decided it was time, with Mother’s help, to initiate me into the family women’s tradition of needle arts.

This is where the two parts of my title come together…because as Rose Wilder Lane [1] observed in The Women’s Day Book of American Needlework [2], needlework has reflected cultural times and ways throughout history. 

My brother is a specialized kind of historian, fascinated by battles and tactics and wars. One night when I was a high school junior, I knocked on his door to ask. “Who won the Battle of Gettysburg, Jeff?” because I had a P.A.D. quiz the next day and had forgotten to bring home my textbook. I emerged over an hour later, dazed; he had gotten out his old model soldiers from under his bed and enthusiastically depicted the ENTIRE three-day battle, using just about every inch of space; I remember the Devil’s Cockpit was on his pillow, and Pickett’s Charge came out from under the chair I sat on with my feet drawn up.

If I hadn't been an English major (with an undeclared minor in history), I would’ve been a social historian (unlike Jeff), because why and how people do things is what interests me. “Herstory” wasn’t a term I learned until I was in my 30s, but it’s inevitably intertwined with the crafts that women did in an effort to keep their families clothed and warm, and to beautify their homes.

My maternal grandmother, Abigail Jones Dangler, was born in 1877 in New Brunswick, NJ. When she was twelve, she left a one-room schoolhouse to go to work as a hired girl on a farm, to help out her family. She’d had to use "a glass over her letters” in school, as well as using a slate that had an abacus of red, yellow and green beads strung on wires at the top of its wooden frame (I learned to count on it when I was little). Shortly after going to work, she got the “white-throat sickness” (diphtheria) on a visit home. Her Welsh grandmother, a weaver, saved her life by putting a quill—a kind of a bobbin—down down her throat to “keep it from shutting like a box.” But somehow, before she had fully recovered, she was back out on the farm, and her mistress sent her to help with the harvest; she had a relapse in the fields and suffered permanent damage to her eyes.

For at least 250 years before her, most of the women on that side of our family had gone blind from cataracts in old age. For Gramma, with already weakened eyes, the onset began earlier; by the time my aunt Abbie, the youngest of her seven children, was born in 1916, she was losing her sight, and by the time she was 70, all light perception was gone.

How could an old blind woman teach a 4-year-old to do crewel embroidery stitches?

Answer: By using some ingenuity. After all, she’d taught me to read the year before that.

Mother bought a fairly loosely-woven, plain white kitchen towel. Getting out her black Singer sewing-machine—I vaguely recall a curved metal piece that she used with her knee instead of a foot-treadle to make it go—she stitched lines of thread down and across it, then added large cross-stitches at each corner of the grid-squares she’d created. On the top row, in each square, Gramma used a needle to make samples of each stitch she wanted to teach me. The first afternoon, I watched with interest as Mother stretched the material taut between embroidery hoops. Patiently, Gramma taught me how to knot a piece of yarn. Mother showed me how to thread the largest tapestry needle she’d been able to find, It felt as big as a telegraph pole between my fingers! With their coachingI made my very first stitch, on a slant. “Noo move the tip of your needle over here underneath,” Gramma said, her soft Hebridean burr/Welsh list coming to the fore, “and push it up through the cloth, cross over the middle of your first stitch, and go down again. What dae you see? What did you make?”

“An x! I made an x!” I cried.

“That’s ca'ed cross-stitch,” she told me.

This set the pattern of her teaching method: she’d show me the one of two for that day already stitched, then slowly demonstrate it for me a couple of times, guide my hands making the first one, feel the ones I did on my own, explain my mistakes, and then I’d practice while she stitched rapidly at what she was doing and told me a story. Sometimes after a while, Mother might join us.

I happily practiced making several before we went on to the second one for that day: back stitch. Every day I’d practice, and gradually mastered blanket, chain, feather, coral, couching, lazy daisy (which made me laugh), outline, stem (those two twist in reverse to each other), rice stitch, twilling and split stitch. By now there were several grid-towels. 

Here I must explain to you that most of the time, my grandmother was Gramma, but when she told me stories, she was my Granny. One day, when Mother had put my hair in braids, Granny said at breaksfast that she’d show me plaited stitch. When we had our afternoon lesson, she showed me witches’ stitch, and as I practiced, she told me a story about spaewives, a kind of witch who could make storms. Later Mother looked at our work and said, “Oh, you’ve learned herringbone!” I protested that there were no fishbones about it, I’d learned witches’ stitch! But what about plaited? And that’s when I found out that a stitch may have more than one or two names!

The two hardest ones were padded satin and French knots. I had trouble doing them evenly. But it was so nice, sitting together at a regular time every day, talking and stitching. I listened more than I talked, trying to wrap the thread around my needle, or remember which side to keep it on, while Gramma quickly did rows of Scottish stitches, and Mother made Renaissance stitches faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. One day they competed in doing spiderweb stitches! I despaired at ever being able to make such complicated things, but that winter for the first time in my life, I made a Christmas present: a “picture” of a house, with flowers lining the front walk, using all the different stitches I’d learned to send to her. Daddy said we should frame it under glass, but I explained to him that no, Gramma would want to feel it so she could tell I hadn’t made any mistakes. “It’s a sampler. Little girls made them in the olden days,” I told him.

Mother had had me do another picture for Daddy, all in cross-stitch. By the time I was eight, I was heartily sick of that particular stitch, and the mere thought of doing counted cross-stitch even now makes me want to scream very loudly and run in the opposite direction, fast!

Sometimes we'd go to Shirley's Yarn Barn out High Street, across from the M&M plant on the right, turning into a driveway that led past a red brick house. Unlike most driveways in Hackettstown at the time, it was U-shaped, curving to go behind the house and under a sort of little white clapboard bridge that connected the house on the right with a red brick barn on the left. Inside the barn were wooden shelves and bins overflowing with more colors than a sky full of rainbows. I'd feel very superior to any ladies buying floral needlepoint with the flowers in the center already done; all they had to do was the beige backgrounds, while my mother did all of hers, and sometimes changed the design on the canvas herself, to boot!

I never got the point of why anyone would buy something with all the interesting bits already done. It seemed to me at the time like cheating. Did they let anyone who saw the finished product think they'd done the whole thing themselves?

When we left, we'd drive past a mysterious overgrown garden with two owl stone gateposts. I wondered what happened to them years later, when M&M bought and redid the property; the grounds became very manicured (and ordinary, if easier to maintain).

The first time we went there, after I'd crossly declared my rebellion against cross [3], Mother showed me a pair of canvas pictures of a Dutch girl and boy on blue backgrounds. "It's half-cross tapestry," she explained. "The yarn comes with each one, in a kit. Would you like to try one?" I was so relieved not to have to do anything beige that I said yes, and once she'd shown me how to tape the edges with masking tape (this was long before we used stretcher bars), I found it very pleasurable to do. It was a wintertime activity. I could see that it'd be too hot to deal with the strands of wool in the hot summertime in our house, which had no AC. So I learned a couple of tapestry stitches--I like basketweave--and when I finished each one, Mother had them blocked to even out where my grubby little hands had unevenly stretched the edges. For a while they hung in my room.

Now, that word tapestry is a bit of a misnomer. Historically, a tapestry referred to a piece woven on looms, a highly skilled craft. The tapestry weaver was very specialized, and he would work from a design called a cartoon. Originally, that word referred to a preparatory drawing or sketch. That it is humorous is a secondary, later definition [4], even though that's the one people think of first now. Last winter, John and I went to The Carnegie to see an exhibit of tapestries, and we saw and chatted with a woman who was making a small one. She had her cartoon pinned up on an edge of the loom.

Woven tapestries--the arras Shakespeare has Polonius hide behind in Hamlet--served an important purpose in medieval times. If your European castle was made of stone walls, with wooden shutters or leaded glass (if you were scandalously wealthy) in the windows, and heated by a fire in a hearth-pit in the middle of the room or later by a fireplace (with most of the heat going up the chimney), in the winter it was COLD. It must have been a lot like camping in a lodge, only draftier--yet still luxurious compared to the hovels the commoners lived in. That's why they had rushes strewn on the floor, and hung up tapestries on the walls, to help insulate a little. If you've ever lived in an old uninsulated house, you know how cold to the touch an outside wall can get.

Tapestries were a status symbol (all those square yards of fabric cost money), so naturally nobles were willing to pay for them to be decorative, and commission special ones to brag about. Like any other home decor item, there were fashions in them. You could get classical or Biblical heroes, or the Seven Virtues, or unicorns, or a hunting scene, or an illustration of a popular legend or myth or life of a saint.

Anyway, it's thought that modern needlepoint looks back thousands of years to the stitch people used in making tents, which is why the first needlepoint stitch I learned on my Dutch girl was called tent stitch. Did you know that when Howard Carter, the archaeologist later famous for finding King Tut's tomb, excavated a cave tomb of a lesser-known pharaoh (not all of them had pyramids) before 1900, he found some needlepoint that was from 1,500 years B.C.? 

Women were doing needlepoint in Europe in the 16th Century, and Flame Stitch, as Gramma called one variety (otherwise known as bargello or Hungarian or Florentine), was very popular 100 years later--call it by whatever name you prefer, this type is done in geometric designs, very mathematically based...which is why I don't do it. With the advent of upholstered furniture in France in the 18th Century, the fabric covering the padding had to be durable (unless you were able to afford to recover those silk chairs every time someone spilled food or wine on them, or snagged them with the end of a rapier or something)--and needlepoint filled the bill. Somewhere in Louisa May Alcott's novels and short stories, there's at least one reference to Berlin work; that was a needlepoint craze in the mid-1800s. There are references to it in the novels of  George Eliot, Mary Gaskell, the Bront√ęs, DickensTrollope, and probably a few others I'm forgetting. Back then, of course, if someone mentioned a woman's work, they meant some form of needle arts--sewing, mending, embroidery, needlepoint (whatever type she was doing), knitting, tatting, crocheting, lacemaking, quilling, or latch-hooking, etc.,and that work could range from clothing, pillows, pictures, throws, bell-pulls, Church vestments, linens, tablecloths, dresser scarves, rugs....You can see where that old proverb about "A man's work lasts from sun to sun, but a woman's work is never done" came from. It wasn't ever done, either.

If you go to Chawton, a charming little village in England (you can get a bus from Winchester), you can visit the Jane Austen Cottage that she lived in for several years before her final illness. There you will see the small side table she wrote four novels on, one ear cocked for the squeak of a door, her signal  to whisk her manuscript out of sight before a guest walked in. That table is slightly smaller than the gorgeous, elaborate workbag (on legs, with many silk compartments inside its lacquered, inlaid lid) that one of her Naval brothers sent her from Japan. After all, it was proper for a lady to do work--but not to be an author.  Her writing isn't even mentioned on her gravestone in a side aisle of Winchester Cathedral or on the stained glass window in her memory above it.

There's something very meditative about needlepointing, and yet it is an exercise of contrasts: the lines of the open-weave canvas which is going to be covered by the stitches; the fluidity of the yarn following the blunt-ended metal needle; the movements of your hands. My mind is free to range from what I'm actually doing--do I need to anchor the end, or can I take a few more stitches? What color shall I select next? Where did I put my scissors? They are crane ones, a gift from Mother, and the only needle arts tool I have worthy of Jane's workbox. More questions to contemplate: How do I keep the cat(s) out of my lap/the bag of yarn/my workbag?--interspersed with memories of stitching with Mother and Gramma, remembering some of Granny's stories (Will I tell that one at my next gig? And what book is it that has a variant on it?), getting an insight into a plot problem on a story I'm writing, thinking about a piece of music I'm learning, or actually tuning into a TV program John is watching.

And in the background is the contented continuity of being part of that tradition, that I am one of thousands of women, some of them my foremothers, seated in a favorite chair and using these familiar skills, tools and materials, to create something new, something of mine. Because even if it's a kit (lacking my mother's artistic talent and verve), still I am free to change a color choice, and at the very least, add in my own initials and the date as a silent proclamation:

       I did this.  It bears the impress of my personality.
                          It is the work of my hands.

There is a peace in that. It is a gift I give myself.

[1] Rose (1886-1968) was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter. A fine novelist in her own right, she encouraged her mother to write the Little House books. She wrote a series of articles on needlework for Women’s Day magazine in the 1960s.
[2] Published in book form by Simon & Shuster: New York, 1963. Mother and I read this first in the magazine articles, and later I found the book. I can’t cite the exact page—I’m paraphrasing—because my copy is in a box at the back of our storage bin and I haven’t looked at it in years. Need to add to the To-Do List to get it out and re-read.
[3] There you are: an example of a carrawidget. (See the description of what this blog is about at the top of the page.) A pun. When I was in college, I found a dictionary of Tudor English (mistitled as Old English), but full of wonderful, little-used words that are satisfyingly mouth-filling and fun to say, and I particularly liked that one.
[4] I should ask Joe Wos if there are any tapestry cartoons in the ToonSeum. He  is a marvelous storyteller who illustrates his stories with cartoons, and often gives them away to children in his audiences.