Sunday Vintage Inspiration: Laundry

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s-227-99 Half way police post with Mounties washing clothes Yukon 19021906

Half-way post with Mounties doing laundry, Yukon Territory, 1902-06. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB. Note sign above door of cabin that reads “Woman wanted.”

Call me crazy, but I enjoy doing laundry and maybe especially laundry by hand (handknit sweaters, delicate blouses, knitted socks)! Saturday is typically my laundry day, when I spend the morning washing and hanging and revelling in the freshness of clean sheets that will soon go on the bed. Sundays I iron my shirts, and even that I find meditative…Maybe I’m a little bit strange…The work that these ladies did was undoubtedly more onerous (the latter two, especially).

na-4172-28  Marge ALlen hanging laundry on line red deer ab 1919

Marge Allen hanging laundry on the line, Red Deer, AB, 1919. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

na-2607-2Mrs Laura Gardiner doing family luandry Porcupine Hills AB 1896

Mrs. Laura Gardiner doing family laundry, Porcupine Hills, AB 1896. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

What a hat for doing laundry!

na-3731-8 woman doing laundry balzac area ab 1905-06

Woman doing laundry, Balzac AB area, 1905-6. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

When I lived in South Korea I was fascinated by the lightweight, highly-portable laundry machines that you could pick up with one hand/arm and that hooked up to the bathroom tap. The one that we had had a separate, narrow centrifugal compartment that practically dried the clothes completely before they were ready to be hung on the balcony. I’ve always remembered that washing machine and wondered why we have such monster machines here (in general).

In Italy, of course, I find myself looking up at small balconies laden with laundry drying and ingenious contraptions folding out from apartment windows.  I don’t know why I haven’t taken any particularly nice photos of laundry in Italy. Perhaps it’s because there is something rather intimate about a family’s laundry hanging out of a window and the family is still by far the central unit of Italian society. You can read the story of a family through its laundry.

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Courtyard. Florence, Italy, 2012.

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Alleyway, Italy, 2013.

Yesterday, I took the bus to a fabric store to buy some zippers and do some general exploring. A man got on the bus with a garbage bag full of beer cans and bottles. He was clearly collecting them to earn some extra money, and as the man was relatively young I wondered how he had ended up in those circumstances. When he opened his mouth he was missing more than a few teeth.

An older, neatly-dressed man with a beard moved to the front of the bus to await his stop and the young man spoke up: “Nice to see you again.” The older man didn’t seem to know the younger man, who said, “I remember you from years before, from X shelter downtown.” They proceeded to have a gracious conversation about how each were now living in apartments provided by the city, rent paid, and how they were appreciative and that things were going well. When they parted they shook hands. An older woman sitting nearby grimaced and moved back a few seats. I can only speculate what she was thinking, but not everyone is keen on people who are being supported by the state. I have to admit that I always feel differently when I see people like this, as I feel strongly that as a society we have an obligation to help its weakest members. These men had a dignity about them, imparted at least in part from the pride that they seemed to have in sharing that they each had their own apartments now. It’s difficult to know what happened to these men earlier in their lives that robbed them of a strong enough will to make an independent life for themselves. One can only hope that by offering them some respect and dignity they will eventually be able to do something more.

Yesterday evening I started looking at photos of laundry in the archives. Beyond the expected photos of women, I came across photos of working men doing their laundry in the west, as we as a country were opening it up. Many men went west as bachelors, to make their lives and their fortunes. Others left the east to work in the west and returned to their families only infrequently. They were forced by economic circumstances to be independent. Some may have even been content living such a life. Anyhow, before I continue playing amateur sociologist, I’d like to share some photos.

The Canadian west and north-west, late 18th and early 19th centuries:

Cook washing his clothes on half-day off during round up in Belly River area ab 1900

Cook doing his laundry on half-day off during round up, Belly River, 1900. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

na-3304-17 EP Brown, railway surveyor doing laundry in wheel barrow 1905-07

E.P. Brown, railway surveyor, doing laundry in wheelbarrow, 1905-1907. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB.

na-2206-8 Canadian Pacific Railway conductors relaxing and doing laundry 1910s

Canadian Pacific Railway conductors relaxing (!) and doing laundry, 1910s. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

na-1789-4.Bill Herzog washing clothes, left; Roy Erbe churning and making bread. Pigs running around in foreground. 1910-03 Delia area abjpg

Bachelor cabin: Bill Herzog doing laundry, Roy Erbe churning and making bread, pigs running around, Delia area, AB, 1910-13, Glenbow Archives, Calgary AB

(I especially like that Roy is making butter!)

And he looks happy:

na-4889-5 man doing laundry outside log cabin NWT 1933 member royal c signals

Man doing laundry outside cabin in NWT, 1933. Member of Royal Canadian Signals. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB.

nc-43-10 bachelor washing clothes, Beynon AB 1893

Bachelor washing clothes outside cabin, Beynon, AB, 1893. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB, 1903.

na-4035-191Man doing laundry on ranch in southern AB

Man doing laundry on ranch in southern Alberta, n.d. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

Of course, Chinese laundries began to crop up in the west, and women soon arrived to do the work.

na-1978-1 Wong Yet store, Olds, AB 1904-5

Wong Yet Star Laundry, Olds, Alberta, 1904-5.  Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

na-2041-1laundry day on Wyman's farm near bon accord ab 1916-1919

Laundry day on Wyman’s farm near Bon Accord, AB, 1916-19. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

One more bachelor for good measure!
na-483-5member of survey crew doing the laundry grande prairie ab 1909

Member of survey crew doing laundry near Blackie, AB, 1909. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

 

Letters; penmanship: twenty to six

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Chère petite maman…pour toi mille bon baisers..à Samedi sans faute” (Vintage (Parisian) post card purchased in Arezzo, Italy)

I can’t hope to convey the full effect of the embraces and avowals, but I can perhaps offer a crumb of counsel. If there is anybody known to you who might benefit from a letter or a visit, do not on any account postpone the writing or the making of it. The difference made will almost certainly be more than you have calculated.

~Christopher Hitchens

I came across that quote scribbled in one of my old notebooks after posting my first letter in a long while just the other day. It wasn’t a long one and it wasn’t written to someone I know well. It was a letter to an elderly woman I met on a plane a few months back, who asked me to write to her. I complied.

She had said that she would write first, so I had trustingly given her my home address as we filled out our customs declarations cards on the final leg of our journey. I had suspended my suspicion and any paranoia we’ve grown to have about strangers who want to know where we live. It took a while, but I received a card for Easter from her the other day and I promptly replied on a piece of pretty Florentine stationery with an envelope with matching print on the inside. I included a poem about April flowers by a poet I’d never heard of but encountered in the Edith Holden journal I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve been writing regular morning pages in longhand lately, with a trusty lined pad of paper and an ordinary ink pen. I’ve used up three pens in just the last three months alone. I hadn’t written longhand in years and I’m finding the process of reclaiming that skill an invigorating one. When I don’t write  – and now that I write this it sounds foolish and obvious – my hand muscles become unaccustomed to writing, my handwriting deteriorates and my hand tires when I’m forced to do it. Now I have fluidity again and the writing style I had as a young girl is starting to appear again.

Do you ever look back at old samples of your handwriting? When I was a girl I was obsessed with mimicking my parents’ handwriting and signatures and I would stare at them and practise them for hours (not for forgery purposes, although I do believe I once (or twice!) forged a note to the principal in high school, accounting for my late arrival). Rather, I was fascinated by what my parents’ handwriting said about them. My mother’s handwriting has always been upright with somewhat wide and exuberant loops, and at the same time spatially neat and restrained, controlled; as though she’s measuring each word as she goes along. She was the one who always wrote the gift tags from Santa and I don’t think I was ever fooled after the age of about six. My father’s handwriting was more traditional, for lack of a better word: sloped and long and elegant, as one imagines finding in old letters written with a fountain pen. The “G” (his unused first name was Garth) in his initials was ornate, calligraphic. Their handwritings were from the opposite sides of the spectrum, as were they, which is not always the worst thing. Except when it is. :)

When I was younger and I wrote actual correspondence more often I remember trying very hard to write prettily. I felt it said something about me if I were too slovenly to take care with my penmanship. Many a page was spoiled and then rewritten until I was satisfied with the note. Now, because writing is so uncommon I am not sure what to think of the penmanship I am reclaiming. A moment ago I grabbed a page I wrote this morning to examine it and it feels unreserved. It slopes to the right and there is a certain regularity to it but it is also expansive – as though it is hopping and skipping along as I was wont to do in the April sunshine this morning. It’s maybe the release that I need in a long dark winter involving lots of passages and waiting for passages from life. The end of life (others’, not mine!) is so constantly present in my sphere at the moment that I can easily remind myself of the joy of being smack in the middle of my living each morning. I open my eyes and every breath is a “wow!” and a “thank you!” and a “lovely to be here.”

I went through a long period of intermittent deep sadness in my twenties, which I didn’t understand until well after I had finally conquered it, although its cause was natural and obvious. I remember seeing a counsellor for a brief moment when I was in graduate school and desperately anxious and what has always stayed with me is his extremely compassionate and considered piece of advice: consider this to be a kind of a gift. I knew what he meant then and I know what he means now, because there’s real power and beauty in knowing – palpably knowing – how to see the gifts in the challenges of every day. It took me a long time to learn the techniques of self-sustenance but without the dark I don’t think I would have grown to understand its inverse so profoundly. I’ve read a theory that depressives (e.g. Lincoln, Winston Churchill) make good leaders because they tend to see things more realistically than do less untouched persons. I don’t know if this has scientific validity but on an intuitive level I like the theory.

I’m not sure how I circled from penmanship to melancholy and back out of it again, but there’s an arc to these thoughts that means something. I find I connect to myself on the written page in a way that I do not always do on a computer (although here I am). I felt genuine excitement as I reached into my purse the other day and found the neat envelope I had addressed to that woman and posted it. Well worth the $1 postage! I don’t know if she will enjoy the letter, but the sending of it felt like a good thing. She was a blustery sort with somewhat fixed opinions I thought but she wore a hot pink feather boa and had spiky blonde hair, despite her years (I didn’t mention that part, did I?). I am not entirely sure that she will appreciate the poetry of Mr. J. Kemble, waxing enthusiastically of ladyslippers and larkspur, but I can’t help but think that a pink feather boa hints at poetry. My father was personally reserved and orderly, precise in his scientific work, and yet he wrote poetry, of which I have none, unfortunately. I cling to the hope that there is a little bit of poetry in everyone, even if it only appears in the form of “I am writing to you at twenty to six, this Sunday in 1912.”

What do you think?

Speaking of poetry, perhaps you know this wonderful letter by Kurt Vonnegut to a high school class.

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A post about something…I think

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rosemary hedge at dusk, Vinci Italy, 2012

I’m trying to post fewer posts that are more or less about nothing than my day-to-day quasi-artistic meanderings. That said, I’m also trying to feel less guilt about posting about my meanderings because what is a blog/online diary other than a means to share lovely things and the creaky, squeaky process of navigating a life? Ultimately, that’s why I’m here in this space and perhaps so are you.

I ought to get out of the house more, I think, which is difficult for the introvert in me, as at times life begins to feel like a process of working, eating and sleeping… repeat, as I wait to be reunited with G after a long winter. I shouldn’t complain really, as I live down the street from my best friend of fifteen years, who also happens to work in the same building. We walk home from work together almost every evening, which is a nice opportunity to stay connected (squabble like old married people).

Last night we went to see a film along with his partner and with another girlfriend, which is a welcome change of pace. The film that we saw is an Indian film called “The Lunchbox” and I highly recommend it if it comes to a theatre near you. The premise is that the dabbawallas (who provide a service delivering hot lunches to office workers in the city of Mumbai) mistakenly send a lunch intended for a woman’s neglectful husband to another man. The “other” man is a lonely widower on the edge of taking early retirement and expected to train his replacement.

It’s a kind of gentle epistolary romance, as the woman and the other man begin a conversation by note, but it’s restrained and the pace of the storytelling is sufficiently slow that it doesn’t feel terribly manipulative. What I liked is the sense of authenticity in the sets and costumes, in that when the lead character is cooking her stove is dirty with drips and stains. When the male protagonist is working he is working in a dingy office with exposed light bulbs and heaps of paper files. These people are easily credible as people down the street from where you live, with the same disappointments and quirks.

In perhaps my favourite scene, there’s an exchange by letter in which the male protagonist speaks of his memories of watching his deceased wife watch cassettes of her favourite old television programs, her reflection on the tv as she laughed at jokes she had heard a thousand times and he repaired his bicycle on the balcony. He says he wishes he had spent more time looking. I cherish the fact that as a species we take the time to write and sometimes to speak things like this in the form of art. I am not any different to any other human being in wanting to share the universal experience of beauty and connection but through the specific ways in which those experiences come to me.

I hope you’re enjoying spring. It has finally come to us. There are no flowers yet but the sun is bright and clear and determined and I am persuaded that there is no turning back from here! In any case, I can’t be far off as the latest I ever remember seeing snow here is April 30. Of course, records may be broken.

 

 

 

 

Sunday Vintage Inspiration: Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence

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I remember clearly the first time I ever stood in the Piazza della Signoria. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before or since. I’d been to England a couple of times – in fact I’d just run the London Marathon for the second time – and I’d travelled through Belgium and France by train, but this was different. The sensation that washed over me was one of intense marvel that I was actually there, finally, in that place I’d dreamed of so intensely. I was a kind of pilgrim and I knew it.

I’d arrived in Rome by plane from a friend’s apartment near Brussels and made a beeline from the airport to Termini station to immediately catch a train to where I wanted to be: Florence. I’d dreamed of Florence from the age of thirteen and there was not going to be any substitute. It was Easter and the high-speed trains were full of families on holiday, so I settled for a milk run route through the countryside and a fold-out seat in the corridor of one of the older-model trains. I squeezed my backpack under the flip-seat and sat staring out the window as the train began to move, rocking from side to side. The windows in the corridor were half-open and the cool spring air and smells of the city were seeping in. It was glorious.

Along the route, there were poppies growing in every crevice of the rail tracks and in the many cracks in the stone walls that we passed. Italians were opening packages of food and distributing panini and other treats among their families. Everything bore a festive air. I was going to Florence. I was going to Florence! The long train ride was a bit like the wonderful suspension that one can feel on a plane, in the air over the ocean, while everyone else is sleeping for the most part. I remember many long trips over the Pacific to Australia and Japan and Korea and Hong Kong in which I waited in the dark for the moment that we crossed over the spot where below sat the Marianas Trench, or the International Dateline. There’s something electrifying and also tenderly sensitizing about being above or between, if only for a few hours. The facts of life as I am is living it in that moment crystallize into something so clear and so pure that I am convinced I will do better when I arrive than I have done before. The risks I dream of taking seem affordable somehow; the facts of love and destiny so expansive.

The Loggia dei Lanzi sits on one side of the Piazza della Signoria, directly opposite the entrance to the Piazza della Signoria (city hall) and at one side of the beginning of the Uffizi galleries. I don’t even know how many metres are contained in the rectangular space, but on New Year’s an orchestra sits in the loggia and plays a concert. That big!

That said, the loggia has always felt to me like a kind of living room. When I’m there I like to climb the stairs and take a seat on one of the stone benches to watch the people come and go, and to feel the space around me. By day, the piazza is nearly always full of roving packs of tourists and their guides, but fewer venture into the loggia. There are usually vigili standing guard in an informal way (to tell people not to eat or drink in the loggia), but often they are otherwise engaged in conversation with passersby.

The Loggia dei Lanzi (also known as a the Loggia della Signoria) was built between 1376 and 1382 by Benci di Cione and Simone Talenti, and formerly misattributed to Andrea di Cione (Orcagna), the brother of Benci di Cione (I believe, though don’t quote me!). It began as a space in which dignitaries could watch important festivals taking place in the piazza (I’ve also read that it was built for purposes of swearing-in ceremonies, or for delivering proclamations, but that public unrest often meant that these official activities didn’t take place). When the Uffizi galleries were built there was a rooftop terrace added. The Loggia bears the name “Lanzi” as a result of the Swiss pikemen (the “Lanzi”)  of Cosimo I, the second Grand Duke of Tuscany, being stationed in the loggia in the 1500s.  It’s rendered in a gothic style and the material I’ve read seems to suggest that it predicts later Renaissance architectural masterpieces such as Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti, which is probably my preferred building in the entire city. As you know I am not an art historian and my interest in writing is to describe the impact of the space on me, but that gives you a flavour of the history.

The sculpture garden in the loggia is also a notable feature, apparently first dating to the temporary ouster of the Medici family in 1494. My understanding is that the Florentines had moved Donatello’s statue of Judith and Holofernes from the Medici Palace to the piazza to symbolize the end of the reign of the Medici (Judith is decapitating Holofernes). When, in 1554, Cosimo I placed the commissioned Benvenuto Cellini statue of Perseus beheading Medusa in the loggia, he may have been doing so as a warning to his enemies. (See the bronze to the far left in the photo at the top.)

While the history and the sculpture in the loggia are fascinating, it’s the feeling of the space that I like to reflect on. In the photo below, which I took in the spring of 2012, on an ordinary weekday, you can get the sense of what it is like to sit in the space. Although entirely of stone and marble, it’s not a cold space; on the contrary, it’s a comfortable place for a conversation or to sit and sketch.

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The Rape of the Sabines (1579 to 1583), by Giambologna (a Flemish artist better known by his Italian name), is an impressive serpentine sculptural group designed to be viewed from multiple angles (far right, above and below).

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Close-up:

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Also Giambologna (Hercules and the Centaur, 1598 or 1599):

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I like this photo because it gives a sense of the light that emerges from the corner of the loggia facing the beginning of the Uffizi galleries:

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Nighttime projection of a ballet (cue the music of Tchaikovsky, who also was resident in Florence for a period and a lover of the city):

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Has a particular public space moved you greatly?

PS:

A fascinating sketch of the Cellini statute of Perseus by John Singer Sargent on the Met Museum site.

George Eastman Company photo by Giorgio Sommer, 1880, of the Loggia dei Lanzi.

 

Exuberance and whimsy

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Nothing in my world even remotely mimics the verdance of the gardens of the villa in this photo, which I visited near Lucca, Italy, two years ago April. That said, I feel filled with the exuberance that comes with spring, as nature begins to poke its head out again. On my way to work I hear the twittering intensity of birds anticipating a great melt of snow. The crocuses are lying in wait beneath the detritus left by a positively glacial winter.

Yesterday, I told my boss that I was going to step out for an hour or two in the morning, as the sun was shining and dirty slush was sliding in rivulets towards the street, muddying everything. I stood in a line of people of all ages, waiting for a high-speed bus on a direct route to Little Italy. There, I visited my favourite fabric store. I spent an hour collecting zippers and thread and chatting about coat-making with the lady clerk. It was a wonderful moment of selective absenteeism from the requirements of life that I more or less never take, a way to honour the legitimate coming of spring.

A propos of nothing pertaining to spring, I found some exuberance and whimsy, too - in fact some poetry - in these photos from the 1940s by Stanley Kubrick last evening. I’m not sure exactly how I came across them, as one tends to fall through a rabbit hole on the Internet, doesn’t one? I am particularly captivated by the woman striding confidently away in the polka-dot dress and the shoe shine boys.

Springtime in Italy (where I am not, but will be fairly soon):

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This sonnet just popped into my mind, probably because Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried in Florence and I like to visit her gravesite in springtime. I memorized many of her sonnets in my early twenties and this was among them:

Belovèd, thou hast brought me many flowers
Plucked in the garden, all the summer through,
And winter, and it seemed as if they grew
In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers.
So, in the like name of that love of ours,
Take back these thoughts which here unfolded too,
And which on warm and cold days I withdrew
From my heart’s ground. Indeed, those beds and bowers
Be overgrown with bitter weeds and rue,
And wait thy weeding; yet here’s eglantine,
Here’s ivy!—take them, as I used to do
Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine.
Instruct thine eyes to keep their colours true,
And tell thy soul their roots are left in mine.

~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Time ticking

I must be officially in a mid-life crisis, or veering towards one :), because I find myself attracted to movies about older people evaluating their lives and finding them wanting - La Grande Bellezza, Le Week-end – and speaking of the latter, was greatly touched by this line from a Peter Bradshaw review in the Guardian that I read today:

Meg and Nick are finding that as they get older, mother nature has played a cruel trick on them. As well as the persistent twinges and pains and agonies of physical decay, they find that they are still poignantly interested in life, interested enough to yearn for more, and to be therefore intensely dissatisfied with themselves and with each other as time runs out, and to find they are still sufficiently compos mentis for this to be almost intolerably painful.

Sunday Vintage Inspiration: 70s feminism, Edith Holden, a kind of independence

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I was a weird teenager. Saying that I realize is a bit like that Tolstoy saw about every unhappy family being unhappy in a different way, but I was honestly a bit weird, even for a teenager. On the one hand I participated in math competitions and on the other hand I gobbled up books like this, which someone gave to me when I was about twelve:

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In my teens, I also read biographies of suffragettes and early women pioneers and statespersons and inhaled books by Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Alice Munro and Margaret Lawrence. When I look at it now, it’s evident that I was searching for evidence that women could be more than wives and mothers. Being a wife and mother is great, but I knew from the age of about nine that that wasn’t what I wanted primarily from life and I needed role models.

My mother was a woman who was comfortable being a wife and mother first, so I wasn’t going to get the inspiration there. Through my twenties her main preoccupation was with me getting married, which I assured her I would not do any time soon (or at least not until I had explored the world and sorted out my place in it). At one point she even asked me if I might be a lesbian, given that I had many art photos that were paintings of women on my walls. I pointed out to her that almost all celebrated painters through history were men, so they tended to paint females as models of beauty…ahem. There was eager anticipation with each new boyfriend, but she finally began to believe me when I broke up with my university boyfriend at the end of my 26th year. He was everything anyone would want in a spouse, but I could see the future and I knew I would be bored with the life that he aspired to. So I ended it. As I walk to work I often reflect on that decision as the most important one of my life – the one that gave me the freedom to be and become who I wanted to be. And of course had I chosen differently then I would never have met G., who is my perfect partner in life and adventure. I’m so glad I took the path less trodden and I wonder sometimes from whence that conviction in me came from such a young age, against the tide of opinion from my mother and also my beloved grandmother.

The seventies, when I was a little girl, were a strange time. I had a strongly feminist aunt, my mother’s sister, who was thirteen years younger than my mother and caught up in the sexual revolution and in the feminist ideals of the period. I wished for a mother who was a modern career woman and who could introduce me to the world of woman career power, but at the same time there was always a whiff of something slightly dangerous, licentious and emotionally unhinged about my aunt’s version of feminism. I was unsure. In fact it wasn’t until I got my first professional job that I found my mentor: a ball-busting pioneering female diplomat who had made her career in difficult posts in the developing world. She had the single most powerful influence on my career and life of any woman before or since, because she pushed me to the edge of my abilities. She gave me challenging projects beyond my then-position and did not accept hesitation or self-doubt on my part. She emboldened me and gave me the conviction that my abilities were worth something. If in doubt, find a mentor!

Now of course I recognize that my mother did what was right for her, given her personality. Apart from fourteen years as a stay-at-home mother, she was for some years a kindergarten and music teacher, always telling me both that there were two choices for women in the fifties – nurse or teacher - and that she was fine with that as she loved being a teacher. I used to argue at great length with her about women only having the choice of being a nurse or a teacher, as evidence in my own family contradicts this, but my mother was deaf to this. I take a gentler view of this attitude now than I did when I was younger, as I (hopefully) take a gentler view of my mother and her own life struggles.

So Edith Holden. I am not related to Edith Holden. Edith Holden was an English woman, artist and art teacher born in the Victorian period and who grew up in an unconventional family, studied art and was an eager student of nature. She married late (age forty) to a sculptor many years her junior, which was not an approved-of choice at the time. She died in an unfortunate drowning accident at age 48, in 1920. The country diary is a painted naturalist guide that she prepared not as a personal journal but as a teaching tool for her students. It’s lovely.

I don’t know if Edith was particularly feminist in her leanings, but I have noticed that an undercurrent of my writings in this space is to celebrate women who made choices outside of the approved boxes. Ultimately, it’s about being able to fulfill one’s potential, whether or not that is inside or outside of the home or both. It’s the willingness to choose one’s own path that attracts me, even if one expects sanction from the outside world, which is more often true if a woman chooses not to be a wife and mother first. I yearn to see that jewel of clarity about one’s creative purpose that some have and that for others proves elusive.

So the diary. Even looking at the watercolours of April flowers and insects gives me joy, while it snows outside my window. My best friend just called me to tell me that he is “watching snowflakes.” I imagine him sitting with his nose pressed to the window, as my golden retriever used to do.

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Oh how the spring of love resembleth/The uncertain glory of an April day!/Which now shows all the beauty of the sun/ And by and bye a cloud takes all away. ~Shakespeare, as quoted by Edith Holden

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I can’t vouch for all of the facts on this page, although it seems to be well done, but if you scroll to the bottom of the entry you will find more of Edith’s lovely watercolours. Enjoy!

Making, collecting stamps, playing the piano…

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Life has been rather stressful lately, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post. So what do I do to alleviate stress? I make things. I make things anyhow, but I can’t think of anything better to do than to get into that flow of making something when there’s something tricky or dark looming on the horizon.

After a definite sewing drought in recent months, I suddenly got my spring sewing mojo back a few weeks ago, in spite of there not being any physical signs of spring outside. I pulled out some old fabric remnants and made two skirts in succession; on Sunday I made the above Sewaholic Alma blouse. It’s lovely, no? Tasia of Sewaholic writes a great pattern. The fabric is Thomas Mason and has a lovely, smooth feel and medium weight to it. It was a bolt end that I got on sale via my local store and in turn via a wholesaler who sells fabrics to producers of men’s shirts. I think this fabric would have made a rather ugly man’s shirt but it does well as a woman’s top, no? ;) I like the way the weave of darker points gives the impression of polka dots in the interior. I do love a good dot.

I think I’m on a mission to make a simple wardrobe this summer that would be worthy of an Audrey Hepburn character strolling the streets of Rome…

Speaking of making, I was thinking of my grandmother in this context. My grandmother was always busy making something. She was passionately fond of knitting and crochet and was a marvellous weaver. I used to sit at her feet and card raw wool for hours, the lanolin greasing my hands and filling my nostrils. She was also a fabulous gardener, cook, baker, and on top of everything a concert-level pianist! She had her faults, of course, among them her taste for sickeningly-sweet butterscotch ripple ice cream, her sometimes nagging personality if she didn’t get her way, and definitely her driving, but she was one of my favourite people in the world, even when she made me sit and cross-stitch (!) a set of pillow cases with the John Lennon quote “Life is what happens when you are making other plans.” At least I think that’s a John Lennon quote. Obviously, I have never cross-stitched a single stitch since then.

When I think about my grandmother I think about her family’s move to Chicago during the Great Depression and the stories that arose out of that experience (including living down the street from Al Cap0ne and the loss of her slightly older brother in a freak accident). I think about the fact that even though she had a chronic auto-immune disease for most of her adult life she always got out and did things – on her bicycle, on foot, by driving too fast in her car (see comment about driving skills above; she used to say that she had never had an accident and we would roll our eyes and whisper that she’d left an unknown number in her wake). I think of her rip-roaring piano playing and the way that she shared that talent with numerous children’s choirs.

Most of all, when I think of my grandmother I think of someone who accepted the dark side of life and who just got on with things with joy and energy. She always had enthusiasm…and a butterscotch pie at the ready.

So why am I writing of this? A friend just returned home from a memorial service for a baby, of all of the most awful things that you can think about happening in life, and we were talking about how funerals can obviously be quite different when they are for older people. When my grandmother died it was way too soon, as she was only 73, but she had been on heavy medication for her disease for many years and it had damaged her heart. She seemed ready to let go when I saw her in the hospital those last few days and I knew she was about to go. She had gone full circle from an adult, vibrant woman to something much smaller, softer and more child-like.

I remember sitting in the church the day of the funeral, listening to my uncle weeping and watching my grandfather’s back jerk as he sobbed soundlessly. I was very sad, but I was mostly thinking about the great gifts of my grandmother and the wonderful gift of making that she had given me. I was in my early twenties and at that stage of life I was still a broke student who made most of her own clothes. I wore a black wool crepe coatdress that I’d made myself to her funeral, with hand-covered black buttons.

Most delightfully, after my grandmother’s funeral service, many of the family’s old friends and neighbours were at the reception, at which time more than a few approached me to tell me their memories of my grandmother. Many made me laugh, as I was recounting to my friend this evening. One charming lady in particular approached me to tell me about the way that my grandmother had smuggled craft supplies into the house. All of her life my grandmother had closets of yarn and knitting machines and fabric and needlework kits; she had a full-sized loom, spinning wheels and sewing machines; she even took up oil painting by structured kit at one point (that didn’t last long). My grandfather, being very frugal, was never very keen on the purchasing of crafts supplies and general love of shopping. In order to get the supplies into the house without him noticing at the time of purchase, my grandmother would leave them at the neighbour’s house and incrementally move them over. I nearly fell over laughing when the lady recounted that one time my grandmother had hidden an entire set of patio furniture at the neighbours’ house and performed the covert, incremental smuggling operation through the winter

(My grandfather is a very clever man – a university professor - and at 92 is still actively day trading in front of his pc in his retirement condominium…so I find it rather odd that he didn’t notice any of this, but he has always been rather unkempt and disorderly and I suppose my grandmother worked with his Achilles heel.)

That was a long ramble, but I felt a strong impulse to celebrate the way that making grounds me and to whom I owe the gift.

Oh but your son wants employment. Has he no particular hobby? Why, I myself have worries, but I can generally forget them at the piano; and collecting stamps did no end of good for my brother.

~ Lucy Honeychurch, A Room with a View (E.M. Forster).

Go back and circle forward

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A friend sent me this article the other day. I don’t follow the politics of the columnist, David Brooks, but I have occasionally read his articles on the subject of aging and looking back. I thought this was interesting in light of my post of a few days ago asking “Why vintage?” It’s not the same thing, of course, as what I was writing about, which is the focus on the style and charm of a past that was not just stylish and charming, and whether I was avoiding the present, but it offers a reason as to why this can be artistically compelling.

I suppose that most writers will say that the deep material for their writing comes from their early life/childhood. The subject matter later on may be different but the essential emotions and interactions were understood early on. I always listen to Eleanor Wachtel on CBC on Sundays (Writers and Company, available as a podcast), as she’s an exceptional interviewer. Over time I’ve noted the peculiar frequency with which great writers are people who suffered some kind of a serious trauma when they were children, either through the loss of a parent or political unrest or exclusion. They don’t necessarily write about those things, but the writing seems to be driven by energy from those places. I suppose there are examples aplenty that contradict this suggestion, however, so I’ll stop there.

Sunday Vintage Inspiration: “the sensitivity of a geiger counter”

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I love all books, of course, but I’m not fastidious about them. I like to live with them and use them, so I am equally happy with second hand books that have been lived in and used by others. My best friend, on the other hand, is fastidious about his books, and won’t lend them to me as he knows I’ll take them to bed with me and fall asleep on them, bending their pages or covers! I understand this with a first edition Dickens, say, but otherwise…

This morning I was feeling very low after a long conversation with someone whose parents are both ill. A wrong number woke me up early, too. So I set about cheering myself up by sitting in the broad sunlight with a book.

First, I noticed the name stamp in my EM Forster collection. Have you ever had a name stamp to stamp your ownership in a book? I haven’t. I remember writing my name into the covers of books when I was a child and in school and my copy of the book needed to be distinguished from others’, but otherwise I am not so possessive. I have often given away books, as the moment required. Books have a life, a path to travel, too.

I was especially amused when I moved on to this poetry book that has been sitting on my shelf for a long while. I believe my mother picked it up for me at a book sale a few years ago, and although I’ve glanced through it a few times I had never noticed that there was a cut newspaper article tucked into the front cover. The article is a review of the same book, from the Montreal Star and dated December 14, 1963. I hope that the reviewer, Alan Pearson, will forgive my bemusement, but this is good stuff. He writes:

Any man who compiles an anthology of current poetry has a difficult task: he needs the sensitivity of a Geiger counter to trace that rarer-than-radium thing, poetic talent. In the case of “Poetry 64″ the anthologer didn’t have it, and the results have been a disaster…

Only geographical considerations could have made possible the inclusion of the poetry of the West Coast poets, George Bowering, Lionel Kearns and Frank Davey. At best their poetry has an attentuated [sic] freshness but all too often it is trivial, personal in the narrow sense and unsatisfying…

The poetry of the two ladies is only a degree or two better. Myra van Reidemann and Gwen McEwen have heaped up stanzas of rich language which fail for lack of any intelligible statement. Margaret Atwood escapes a similar verdict on the slender strength of two poems…

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The reviewer does go on to praise the included poetry of John Newlove, whom I’ve previously indicated is a favourite of mine.

However, Poetry 64 is not a complete loss. John Newlove’s poetry has an anguished brooding quality, marked by excellent rhythm and contemporary sensibility.

I had already opened the book to this poem of John Newlove, the latter part of which I rather liked:

On Two Painters

Roy Kiyooka

I would not write
any poem about this
man, or what he paints, he is
too valuable to

me, and I am too greedy,
to share what he
does not know he gives, what
he gives out.

And this one:

Scene Briefly Noted

So. The hunchback
in the red plaid jacket,
I note that,
strides to the bar

as best he may. He
asks manfully for change
and is treated to a joke
about the shape beneath his coat.

Unwilling to be hurt, he asks
again. And is given his due.
I feel the proper pity. So.
Let me begin again.

~ John Newlove

So a Sunday thank you goes out to the unnamed person who clipped the article and inserted it into the book for me to find these fifty years on.

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