Friday, December 31, 2010

Goodbye, Christmas

The cold last day of the year
And I put away the ornaments,
Pack up the Nativities,
Return the Santas to the old trunk
And, as my grandmother taught,
Make sure that the tree is out of the house
Before the New Year comes in.
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Thursday, December 30, 2010

More Christmas Books

Helen asked if I got any more books and the answer is a resounding Yes!   

Red Lily is one I asked for -- on Kay Byer's recommendation. "Isabel Zuber's poems weave their way quietly and sinuously into the reader's ear and imagination.  Their emotional landscape pulses with mystery mixed with a keen-eyed awareness of life's seasons and the reverberations that ripple ceaselesly from that knowledge."

Oh, yes. They do, indeed.
My niece, who reads my blog and has probably noted that I like wandering about graveyards and looking at old headstones, sent me this terrific field guide(profusely illustrated) to cemetery symbolism and iconography. 

I absolutely love it. And I forsee taking some day trips to graveyards farther afield.
My sister-in-law sent this charming old book -- copyright 1885. It's set in a boy's school that reminds me in many ways of the Plumfield of Alcott's Little Men. Most of the boys are manly little fellows and the girls are paragons of womanly virtue. It should be cloying but it isn't, at least not to me. But then I grew up reading my grandmother's old books. And it's a painless way to research the era.

Interestingly enough, the illustrations --"by the best American and English artists" -- seem to have been gathered nilly-willy and fit to the story, much as we bloggers glean images from the Internet.
The Encyclopedia of the Exquisite, a fascinating and eclectic little book, roams all over the place from lazzi (comic gags used by Renaissance actors) to confetti (originally candied fruits) . . .
to omelets, frilly lingerie, big hair and beyond.
The Hare with Amber Eyes is the story of a wealthy, cultivated Viennese family who, because they were Jews, lost everything on the Nazis' entry into Austria. Everything, that is, but a collection of netsukes. I've just begun and am really enjoying it.
The hefty package from my son and daughter-in-law had the clue "interred in the desert sands"on the label. (In the family, we put clues on our gifts to one another and try to guess what's inside before ripping the paper off.)

I should have guessed but the size and the weight had me confused. It's a Doonesbury Retrospective and I'm having a great time filling in the years I missed before I discovered that I could begin my day with a fresh Doonesbury on line.
So, what are you reading? 

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mountain Born

Mountain Born by Jean Boone Benfield is "a recollection of life and language in Western North Carolina" and I highly recommend it to any of you who have an interest in the folkways of Appalachia.

I don't know the author (who grew up in the next county) but much of what she writes is familiar to me -- and delightful!

Ms. Bennfield writes of growing up in the Forties and Fifties, of Asheville at that time, of food and farms and family life, of traditions and superstitions, and, best of all, she lists some seven hundred old words and sayings --'some not fit for polite society.'

"Helpless as a one-legged man at an ass-kicking" is one of my favorites. And "not enough sense to pee a hole in the snow." And -- well, I could go on.

For those of you who've told me that my books remind you of your grandparents or other kin, this is a book you'll love!

Thank you, Ms. Benfield, for this loving, witty, and wise compilation of memories!

In other news -- we had a whole day of sunshine yesterday! What a pleasure! 
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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

FAQ - Classes

Q: Do you do online writing classes? I don't live in the Asheville area but would love to take a class with you.
A: Alas, no online classes. The ones I teach through the Great Smokies Writing Program (see side bar) keep me pretty busy.  But if any of you are interested in spending a week in the mountains and doing a class, I will be teaching at Wildacres Writing Workshop, July 9 -16. 

There are classes in non-fiction, flash fiction, poetry, short story, and novel writing.  And if that doesn't tempt some of you prolific bloggers out there . . .

My class will be  'contemporary commercial fiction' -- that basically means popular fiction as opposed to literary (though some popular fiction is rather literary and some literary fiction is popular . . . )

The tuition, which includes room and board is pretty reasonable.  And there are a few scholarships available.

 I'm really excited about this opportunity. Ron Rash, just to drop a name, is leading the short story class  and I'm hopeful I'll get a chance to sit in at some point. And the poetry offering is so tempting . . .

I haven't been to Wildacres before but the area is beautiful and I've heard nothing but good things about the facility and the food and the programs.

Do check out the links.   It sounds fairly idyllic.

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Lots o' Snow

Oh my, so much snow!  Our road was impassable to vehicles -- even with chains -- on Christmas and on Boxing Day.  Our friends from the other side of the county couldn't make it here for Christmas and we couldn't get out to the traditional Boxing Day party at other friends' house.

So far, so good. We have power, an embarrassing amount of food and sparkling wine, books and toys to play with . . . and more snow in the forecast. We aren't going anywhere.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

 I think we're almost ready. From my great-grandmother's quilt that only comes out for Christmas time to the tiny Italian Nativity I gave my grandmother almost fifty years ago to the plaster Santa Claus that John painted when he was in grade school as well as all the other traditional Christmas decorations . . .

The pineapple, oranges and coconut are waiting to to be made into ambrosia for Christmas breakfast; there are ducks thawing for the feast, a mincemeat pie to be made . . .

And the possibility of quite a bit of snow. We hope that the friends who usually join us for Christmas Day will be able to get here . . .  we hope that there will be power . . .

And I hope that all of you are enjoying this Christmas Eve!

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

From Our Far-Flung Correspondents . . .

 The following was brought to my attention by Liz G. -- it's from the Commentary section of yesterday's Chicago Tribune. And it's about Marshall -- our county seat and the place I call Ransom in my books. 

The writer got it mostly right.

No heated toilet seats in Marshall

 by William Choslovsky

Two recent trips exposed me to what is right with America, and wrong

Let's start with the wrong, as that was quicker. I was recently in Las Vegas, visiting some of the money I'd left behind on previous trips. In the middle of my first night, I awoke and stumbled into the bathroom where I was met by something wholly unexpected: a heated toilet seat.

Don't get me wrong. It felt good, and I know Sin City is home to excess, but let's ponder this for a moment.

To enjoy the warmth on one's rump for two minutes per day, the seat is heated for 1,438 minutes more! As I sat, I thought of my father's stories of how he used to dig the pit for his family's outhouse, which made me feel particularly guilty.

I am convinced that when historians look back in 500 years on the downfall of American civilization, they will trace it to heated toilet seats in Vegas. Reality television and bacon martinis may also be on the list, along with competitive kindergarten.

Now, as for what is right in America, I take you to Marshall, N.C., where I recently spent a long weekend with family. Marshall is in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, about 30 minutes from Asheville, a hip town. But to give some perspective, Asheville — at least culture and pace wise — is closer to Manhattan than it is Marshall. And therein lies the joy.

On our first night, we found ourselves at a little restaurant in "downtown" Marshall called Zuma. It was packed with soft-spoken locals, and a number of musicians engaged in an impromptu bluegrass jam session. One was better than the next. When I asked a regular who one fiddler was, he said, "Bobby Hicks, he's pretty good, ain't he?" 

As my urban impulses got the best of me, I Googled Bobby Hicks and learned he only has 10 Grammy Awards, not that he, or any of the other talented musicians, would tell you. And here he was playing for nothing. Nothing, of course, other than true joy and the comfort of a night spent well with neighbors.

Later in the weekend, I found myself in the parlor of Pat Franklin, whose family's roots in these parts go back to the early 1800s, if not earlier. Strumming guitar and sharing some gritty lyrics in her parlor was Larry Norton, who lives nestled in the mountains 15 miles away in an even smaller "town" called Sodom. Sodom, I am told, makes Marshall look downright cosmopolitan.

Larry, who likely lacks an eighth-grade education, played hymns and tunes so pure, some of which are unchanged in these hills for hundreds of years. Even Johnny Cash might have felt like a sellout in his presence.

I also learned during my visit that it was in these hills that the American revolution turned, where the British suffered some of their first setbacks. It was also here in the Civil War where brother literally fought brother, with the area bitterly divided over slavery.

And truth be told, these "Bible-thumping folks" in Marshall are not only more welcoming than any of my urban counterparts, they are actually more open-minded as well. They combine sincere appreciation and contentment with respect and openness.

It is easy to dismiss places like Marshall and their people as "hicks in the sticks." These "hicks," however, can surely teach us city slickers more than we can teach them.

If the grid went out, they'd survive a lot longer than you or I, but it runs deeper than that. Even if the grid doesn't run out, they may fare better — or at least understand and appreciate life better — as they practice balance better than most others.

Now I am sure I am romanticizing my weekend a bit, but between the majestic mountains, quiet streams and earnest locals, it may be well-deserved.

While so much of our world is pre-fab, contrived, hyped and artificial, Marshall is — in a word — authentic. And to be clear, authenticity does not mean all is candy canes and roses.

Quite the contrary, much of life in Marshall is hard. But hard or not, in Marshall, what you see is generally what you get, people mean what they say, and there are few mixed messages.

If you visit, you'll find much to like, just don't go looking for a heated toilet seat.

William Choslovsky is a Chicago attorney.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Out and About

 Tuesday was gray and drizzly but I took my camera along on my trip to town.  I'm happy to report that the white goose down by the river still has lots of Canada geese to keep him company.
Just across the bridge is the annual Christmas display arranged by a fellow who lives nearby. It's a little different every year and it always makes me smile.
I thought of Merisi  and her lovely shots of Vienna as I took this last picture. The Madison County Courthouse dome lacks the elegance of Viennese architecture -- it also lacks its statue of Lady Justice -- removed (indefinitely) for repairs. Still, there is an angel to bless the scene.
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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Celebration of Light

There was definitely a full moon . . .
But it was soon surrounded by clouds . . .

We'll see if the eclipse and the Ursids are visible later. 

Whether or not, it's still the Solstice. The sun will be inching back to the North and our days will grow longer and, eventually, warmer. The eternal turning . . . the eternal return.

I think of early man, huddled around fire in dank caves, cold and fearful, watching the days grow shorter and colder as the sun spent more and more time below the horizon. 

Perhaps they practiced sympathetic magic -- making more fires, brandishing torches, chanting and singing to entice the sun to return, to linger. . .

We in the Northern Hemisphere still do the same with our bright lights and decorations, our holiday music and cheer, seeking to bring light and warmth to this dark season . . . celebrating the eternal return. 

May this rare heavenly dance usher in a brighter season for all of Mother Earth's children  -- food and shelter, peace and justice -- those would be a nice beginning.


If  you couldn't see the eclipse or the meteor shower, you can always have fun with Van Gogh's "Starry Night." 
Warning! Online jigsaw puzzles can be addictive!

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Sky Magic

For the first time in 632 years, the December Solstice will coincide with a complete lunar eclipse.  But, wait, that's not all! It's a full moon and there's a meteor shower. And it's happening tomorrow! Read all about it HERE

With so many celestial events coinciding, one is tempted to hope for miracles. . .
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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Towards Solstice

Black willow reaches,
Longing  for the winter sun
And its cold pale fire.
Time and water freeze;
Stillness lies upon the land, 
Slow, the great wheel turns...

... and in French, courtesy Miss Yves ...

Noir, se tend le saule
Vers le soleil hivernal
Son feu froid et pâle.

Le temps et l'eau gèlent
Le calme s'étend sur terre
Lente, la roue tourne.
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