Wednesday, December 29, 2010


The Newborn, by Georges de la Tour, 1645

"What we shall be asked to give is our flesh and blood,
our daily life -- our thoughts, our service to one another,
our affections and loves, our words, our intellect, our waking, working, and sleeping,
our ordinary human joys and sorrows -- to God.
To surrender all that we are, as we are, to the Spirit of Love
in order that our lives may bear Christ into the world -- that is what we shall be asked."

- Caryll Houselander
via Heimatland

Monday, December 27, 2010

Heroine of Human Dignity: Mildred Fay Jefferson

“I am at once a physician, a citizen, and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow the concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged, and the planned have the right to live."
Dr. Mildred Jefferson, 1926-2010

See Tea at Trianon for a discussion of this great American.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Reading Charles Dickens with Young Teens

"The pilgrimage begins." Two wayfaring strangers, Nell and her grandfather, from The Old Curiosity Shop.

Recently, I picked up The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, where I had left off a few years ago at page 265, and after looking at the book's first sentence--"Night is generally my time for walking."--decided to start again at the beginning. I am glad that I did, because there is no haziness in my head as the story of Nell and her grandfather unfolds before me in vivid color.

When I came to the descriptions in chapter 15 of Nell and her grandfather working their way toward the outskirts of London through the night into dawn and how life slowly awakens in the streets, I was surprised by the beauty of the prose and then saddened that so few people read Dickens today and that his books are often missing form high school reading lists. Although Dickens' descriptions do not make you feel as if you are in the scene, as with Flaubert, they are so rich in the minuteness of telling detail, the lush depiction of human behavior, and evocations of mood, that, in comparison, the descriptions I have read recently in late 20th century American literature seem paltry and starved in comparison.

So I was happy when I found Sunday in the Wall Street Journal that Oprah Winfrey has chosen two Dickens novels--A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations--for her book club. I think the more that people read Dickens the better. Especially, I hope that children in their early teens read Dickens. Here are some of my reasons:

Reading Dickens takes us into a different world, and there is nothing wrong with that. Although the torments of poverty, especially for children, are depicted starkly and that may not be our experience, children in such straits are not far away, even in America. Although the Victorian morality may differ from today's standards, it is a morality that is recognizable to almost anyone. In short, there is nothing so vastly different in Dickens' world from ours that makes any of Dickens' world irrelevant.

Within this world, we get a glimpse of just about everything--we see extraordinary goodness and kindness, we see eccentricity, we see hilarity, we see evil, and all shades in between. We see this in great detail. It is not just that Dickens paints an unforgettable character. Like a great painter or a great actor, he reports the character's gestures--the tip of the head, the pause before entering the door, the scratching of the nose, the deep bow--all at the service to the moment at hand. Sometimes the narration is so nuanced, we feel that if we stretched our hand from the pages of the book, we might bump right into a character!

Mrs. Jarley, queen of the waxworks, a kind-hearted soul who regularly quenches her thirst from a "suspicious bottle."--The Old Curiosity Shop

This embracing of the distinctness of human beings--no matter how brief the encounter--let's us know that Dickens loves everything about the world he has created--even its evil characters. Life is the subject and within that circumference, everyone, good and bad, has something to contribute to the story, to guiding the reader through the glories and pitfalls of human existence.

Hence, I find in Dickens a benign introduction for young teens into a world that is far more complex than the world in the mind, say, of a sixth grader. Here in Dickens' world, we meet all kinds of gradations, even within the same character--as with Nell's grandfather, a kind-hearted man devoted to his grandchild yet ready to squander every penny away in his gambling addiction, which brings her nothing but torment. We see the consequences of action and inaction; the intended and unintended consequences of cruelty and of kindness; and the great inability of everyone to control their lives as they like.

I am reminded that Anne Frank's father read Dickens constantly during the years in their hiding place, a time when Anne was in her early teens, and regaled everyone with a reading of The Pickwick Papers. Love of life is Dickens' central theme, and life, as Dickens' books, has many lessons to teach.

In David Copperfield, Dickens portrays his vision of the best life has to offer: love within a safe and secure family in a home that expresses this love in gardens, neatness, and orderliness. I am not deterred by the fact that Dickens forswore his own wife for a far younger woman; I am not recommending that young teens read Dickens' biography; many writers paint their dreams, not their far frailer realities. But when David Copperfield is a young boy living with his beloved mother and Peggoty, and at Peggoty's brother's home on the beach, we see that the close-knit family is the center, the very fire, of life--a life all children deserve.

"I am hospitably received by Mr. Peggoty." -- David Copperfield

Friday, December 10, 2010

Welcome Back, Mr. Milkman!!

Some of you may remember my disgruntled post of a while back titled: "Where's the Milkman?" I noted that my mother, a suburban stay-at-home mom, had practically a parade coming to her own home every week: the milkman, the bread man, and the egg man, and that now, when many wives and mothers are working, this is the kind of service we need more than ever, but it's not there!

Now, I am happy to report I have a milkman! I was driving down the street where I live in northern Virginia about two months ago, and I saw a big truck in front of me, which said "South Mountain Creamery -- Milk Delivery." What! I noted the url on the truck and raced to the Web as soon as I got home to look it up.

Sure enough, some smart folks in rural Maryland are delivering milk and other necessities to your doorstep once a week. You can go online to change your order or to skip deliveries if you are going out of town. Along with milk, eggs, and bread,South Creamery delivers local jams and preserves and other condiments, their own yogurt and assorted dairy products, bacon and meats, and other specialties. The prices and the delivery charge are all reasonable.

I signed up for a weekly delivery of a quart of skim milk (IN GLASS BOTTLES--hurray!), a loaf of honey wheat bread, and a dozen eggs. This week, I also ordered some jam. They come every Friday, and I just set my cooler outside.
I hate going to the food store, and I figure that in a pinch I can scramble up a repast with these items. Thank you so much, South Mountain Creamery, which is getting busier by the week.

In today's delivery I also received a Season's Greeting card, signed by the owner and underneath, it read:

Mr. Milkman, welcome back!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: The Sower

The famous works of Vincent van Gogh have so permeated our visual culture today--appearing in posters, on mugs, umbrellas, note cards, ties, t-shirts, calendars, etc. -- that we tend to be unaware of the huge body of work this extraordinary man left us as the fruits of barely a decade of artistic production. In viewing the Starry Night (shown here), Wheat Field with Cypresses, or the portrait of L'Arlesienne (Madame Ginoux), we are so startled by the vibrancy and colors of the painting that we imagine that van Gogh produced it in the high heat of a moment of pure genius. Such masterpieces were the result of genius and also van Gogh's persistent pursuit of visual truth in countless drawings and paintings of people, landscapes, and still lifes. Given the ferocity of his own efforts, it is not surprising that van Gogh found in labor of all kinds a subject for his study -- sowing wheat, planting potatoes, digging potatoes, burning weeds, cutting down wheat with a scythe, working in the vegetable garden, raking, olive picking, and resting in the field. He captured women sewing, knitting, cooking, doing the laundry, and tending children and men cutting wood, selling wood, weaving,taking their goods to market, and mending fishnets.

Continuing on the Thanksgiving theme, here are his studies of The Sower.

The Sower, Vincent van Gogh, 1888

The Sower, 1888

The Sower, 1888

The Sower, After Millet, 1888

The Sower, After Millet, 1889

The Sower, Outskirts of Arles in the Background, 1888

The Sower, 1888

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

The Sower by N. C. Wyeth, 1926

We plough the fields, and scatter
The good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered
By God's almighty hand;
He sends the snow in winter,
The warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine,
And soft refreshing rain.

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord,
O thank the Lord
For all His love.

He only is the Maker
Of all things near and far;
He paints the wayside flower,
He lights the evening star;
The winds and waves obey Him,
By Him the birds are fed;
Much more to us, His children,
He gives our daily bread.

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord,
O thank the Lord
For all His love.

We thank Thee, then, O Father,
For all things bright and good,
The seed-time and the harvest,
Our life, our health, our food:
No gifts have we to offer
For all Thy love imparts,
But that which Thou desirest,
Our humble, thankful hearts.

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord,
O thank the Lord
For all His love.

(The Hymnal: Published by the authority of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1895. The words and music are here.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: The Chadds Ford Wyeths

Chadds Ford Hills, Newell Convers Wyeth

N.C. Wyeth was the father of Andrew Wyeth and grandfather of Jamie Wyeth. His son's work is noted for its muted palette, while N.C. Wyeth's paintings radiate color and atmospheric effect. If you have the opportunity, visit the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, home to many paintings by all the Wyeths.

At the museum, which I visited last year, the effects upon me of the works of N. C. Wyeth and his son were quite different. Many of Andrew Wyeth's paintings I found deeply moving, especially those with the layers of dry tempera rising from the surface of the canvas. The experience is almost religious; despite the apparent simplicity of his subject, its essence is drawn out through the paint signifying a whole world to us, each leaf seeming to drip with the cosmic significance of creation.

N.C. Wyeth's paintings awe in a different way--their human poignancy and the placement and gestures of the figures in his paintings, many of them used as illustrations, draw us into their world. We are caught up in the action; we are dying to know what happens next. The fulsomeness and beauty of the drama, surroundings, and coloration prompt in us a near reverential appreciation of both the fragility and the richness of life.

So in praise of the fall and the Wyeths, here is a painting by N.C. Wyeth of his beloved Chadd Ford Hills, for which I have no words at all.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: A Benefit of Working

Scrubwoman, by John French Sloan, 1910-1911

(Click on the paintings to get a better view.)

Here is a painting of scrub women working at the Astor Library in New York City, a place I used to spend a lot of time in as a reader. I like this painting, because it does not depict these ladies as victims of poverty-mandated drudgery, but instead draws our attention to their cheerfulness: they seem to be enjoying a friendly joke, although the shading of the painting indicates that they live in a different world than the silent scholars in the next room.

An atmosphere in which jokes are welcome is a crucial factor in selecting where I work. Once when I was a waitress at a New York City diner, if I made the slightest hint of a joke, the owner would snort, "Don't get fresh, Linda." It was dreary to work there, and I didn't last long. At another restaurant I worked in, all the waitresses, the cooks, the bartender, and the hands-on manager joked all day, and half the time I was in stitches. It was fun to work there. Even today, when I am buried under mountains of work on my job (the reason for the dribble of posts these last months), although the work is difficult and can be tedious, the atmosphere is convivial--which makes the job easier. If a spoil-sport like Ebenezer Scrooge ran the place, it would be intolerable. Women on the job jabber about their children, food, clothes, shopping, doing things for one another, their hobbies and crafts. Men report to each other on food, sports, trips, and sometimes (I overhear) what they are doing to keep their wives happy.

These conversations and jokes among fellow workers relieve tension, put a downward pressure on anxiety levels, and build team spirit to get a job done. It is a benefit of working.

John French Sloan (1871-1951) was a major figure of the Ashcan School of realist artists who resisted the pull of abstractionist art in the early decades of the 20th century. Born, raised, and trained in Philadelphia, he produced most of his art in New York City, where, he wrote in his diary, "I am in the habit of watching every bit of human life I can see about my windows, but I do it so that I am not observed at it ... No insult to the people you are watching to do so unseen."

I think he had a particular knack for portraying women in conversation, as these paintings show:

Sunday Women Drying Their Hair, 1912

Three A.M., 1909

Spring Planting in Greenwich Village, 1913

Although he looks a little taciturn himself...

Self Portrait, 1890

Monday, November 8, 2010

Preparing for Advent

Advent begins on Sunday, November 28, and it may seem strange to talk about preparing for a season that is itself all about preparation, but that is how the British writer, poet, and Catholic mystic, Caryll Houselander, begins her beautiful treasure, The Reed of God, written in 1944:

That virginal quality which, for want of a better word, I call emptiness is the beginning of this contemplation.

It is not a formless emptiness, a void without meaning; on the contrary it has a shape, a form given to it by the purpose for which it is intended.

It is emptiness like the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless emptiness which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper's breath and to utter the song that is in his heart.

It is emptiness like the hollow in the cup, shaped to receive water or wine.

It is emptiness like that of the bird's nest, built in a round warm ring to receive the little bird.

The pre-Advent emptiness of Our Lady's purposeful virginity was indeed like those three things.

She was a reed through with the Eternal Love was to be piped as a shepherd's song.

She was the flower-like chalice into which the purest water of humanity was to be poured, mingled with wine, changed to the crimson blood of love, and lifted up in sacrifice.

She was the warm nest rounded to the shape of humanity to receive the Divine Little Bird.

Emptiness is a very common complaint in our days, not the purposeful emptiness of the virginal heart and mind but a void, meaningless, unhappy condition.

Strangely enough, those who complain the loudest of the emptiness of their lives are usually people whose lives are overcrowded, filled with trivial details, plans, desires, ambitions, unsatisfied cravings for passing pleasures, doubts, ambitions, unsatisfied cravings for passing pleasures, doubts, anxieties, and fears; and these sometimes further overlaid with exhausting pleasures which are an attempt, and always a futile attempt, to forget how pointless such people's lives are. Those who complain in these circumstances of their lives are usually afraid to allow space or silence or pause in their lives. They dread space, for they want material things crowded together, so that there will always be something to lean on for support. They dread silence because they do not want to hear their own pulses beating out the seconds of their life, and to know that each beat is another knock on the door of death. Death seems to them to be only the final void, the darkest, loneliest emptiness.

They have no sense of being related to any abiding beauty, to any indestructible life: they are afraid to be alone with their unrelated hearts.

Such emptiness is very different from that still, shadowless ring of light round which our being is circled, making a shape which in itself is an absolute promise of fulfillment.

The question which most people will ask is: "Can someone whose life is already cluttered up with trivial things get back to this virginal emptiness?"
Of course he can: if a bird's nest has been filled with broken glass and rubbish, it can be emptied.

It is not only trivialities which destroy this virgin mindedness; very often, serious people with a conscious purpose in life destroy it by being too set on this purpose. The core of emptiness is not filled by trifles but by a hard block, tightly wedged in. They have a plan, for example, for reconstructing Europe, for reforming education, for converting the world; and this plan, this enthusiasm, has become so important in their minds that there is neither room to receive God nor silence to hear His voice, even though He comes as light and little as a Communion wafer and speaks as soft as a zephyr of wind tapping on the window with a flower.

Zealots and triflers and all besides who have crowded the emptiness out of their minds and the silence out of their souls can restore it. At least, they can allow God to restore it and ask Him to do so.

The whole process of contemplation through imitation of Our Lady can be gone through, in the first place, with just the simple purpose of regaining the virgin-mind, and as we go on in the attempt we shall find that over and over again, there is a new emptying process; it is a thing which has to be done in contemplation as often as the earth has to be sifted and the field ploughed for seed.

At the beginning it will be necessary for each individual to discard deliberately all the trifling unnecessary things in his life, all the hard blocks and congestions; not necessarily to discard all his interests for ever, but at least once to stop still, and having prayed for courage, to visualize himself without all the extras, escapes, and interests other than Love in his life: to see ourselves as if we had just come from God's hand and had gathered nothing to ourselves yet, to discover just what shape is the virginal emptiness of our own being, and of what material we are made.

We need to be reminded that every second of our survival does really mean that we are new from God's fingers, so that it requires no more than the miracle which we never notice to restore us to our virgin-heart at any moment we like to choose.

Our own effort will consist in sifting and sorting out everything that is not essential and that fills up space and silence in us and in discovering what sort of shape this emptiness in us is. From this we shall learn what sort of purpose God has for us. In what way are we to fulfill the work of giving Christ life in us?

Are we reed pipes? Is He waiting to live lyrically through us?
Are we chalices? Does He ask to be sacrificed in us?

Are we nests? Does He desire of us a warm, sweet abiding in domestic life at home?
These are only some of the possible forms of virginity; each person may find some quite different form, his own secret.

I mention these three because they are all fulfilled in Our Lady, so visibly that we may be sure that we can look at them in her and learn what she reveals through them.

If you would like to read more writings of Caryll Houselander, many of her books are available at Albris, Barnes and Noble, and Borders.

The painting is The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci, 1472-75.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In Praise of the Linen Closet

Karin Larsson at the Linen Closet, by Carl Larsson, 1906. The artist's wife is carefully inspecting her linens. I like the large size of this beautiful cupboard--which holds a lot, unlike the narrow linen closets built into the upstairs hallway in many American homes.

I have always been impressed by a beautiful linen closet, so you can imagine how much I enjoyed this passage in Joy Street, a novel written by Frances Parkinson Keyes in 1950:
One afternoon, Emily [a new bride of upper-crust Boston society in the 1930s], led her husband to the spacious linen closet and, throwing open its double doors, revealed pile after pile of snowy sheets and pillowcases and towels, gartered with satin-covered elastic to insure perfect regularity, and scented with small bags of lavender nestling between each pile.

At the Linen Closet by Pieter de Hooch, 1663. The Dutch, the first to value housecleaning and whose art celebrated domesticity, naturally took their linen closets seriously. Here the mistress of the home returns sparkling clean sheets to the linen closet. Note the child playing hockey on the floor on the right, reminding us that chaos is always on the horizon.

The scene reminded me of a similar description in the book, Sweeping the German Nation: Domesticity and National Identity in Germany by Nancy Ruth Reagin. A non-German in the early 20th century visits the home of a German professor, whose wife:
"threw back both doors of an immense cupboard occupying the longest wall in the home... [For] their happiness, they possessed all this linen: shelf upon shelf, pile upon pile of linen, exactly ordered, tied with lemon coloured ribbons."

A German housewife was expected to wash her white linen and spread it out on the lawn for bleaching so it was snowy white before being laid in the closet.

I've always appreciate Martha Stewart's ideas about the linen closet, too, reading them in her magazine quite a few years ago. Here is a Martha Stewart Linen Closet Picture Gallery and a Martha Stewart Organize the Linen Closet Checklist.

Below a Martha Stewart linen closet--I love the eyelet border hanging over the edge of the shelves. Note ribbons.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Meeting Mrs. Egg

Although Mrs. Egg was younger than the woman in this picture, she fed her 6'5" son with that kind of zest. Mrs. Egg was the creation of Thomas Beer, who wrote stories about the Eggs and other families for the Saturday Evening Post during the 1920s and 1930s. Most of his books are out of print. Reading about Mrs. Egg is like reading stories that Norman Rockwell would have liked to illustrate. Or was it the other way around--did Norman Rockwell, whose paintings graced the covers of the Saturday Evening Post--inspire Thomas Beer?

I was referred to Thomas Beer by William Faulkner. During his question and answer sessions at the University of Virginia, Faulkner was asked who were the major influences on his work. He replied, Cervantes (whose Don Quixote he said he read once a year), Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and Thomas Beer. Thomas Beer?

Beer was actually a literary man, the kind of man that Faulkner said he wasn't. He wrote a biography of Stephen Crane, a book on the American culture of the 1890s titled The Mauve Decade, and three novels. He moved in literary circles in New York City (he lived and died in Yonkers), and his many literary friends felt sorry for him because he was chained to churning out popular stories for the Saturday Evening Post about everyday types of people--like the Egg family, who own and run the biggest dairy farm in Ohio, a world away from that which Beer made his home--to make the money he needed to live in style. Mrs. Egg and her son, Adam, champion Navy wrestler in the years of World War I, are the major characters of the stories, which are otherwise crowded with Mr. Egg, her three married daughters, Mrs. Egg's grandchildren, her parade of cooks, friends, neighbors, town folk, and various strangers who often are the occasion for the plot. These are fun stories of small-town family life.

Mrs. Egg, who weighs 250 pounds, thinks a lot about food and how to keep her strapping son well fed, and is a very down-to-earth person--a condition that Beer celebrates. Her strong suit is common sense, that always wins out against pretension. The dialogue is authentic, as if Beer secretly stalked Middle America listening to people talking in their homes or along their backyard fences or at the local store. And in fact, he had many correspondences with all different kinds of people all over the country.

In Beer's third novel, Road to Heaven, he attempted to write about people like the Eggs in a more literary style, but the book was panned by the critics, who considered this side of Beer's work to be too low-brow. Beer was writing at the same time as Sinclair Lewis was penning his caricatures of small-town life in Main Street and Babbitt, books the literati found far more praiseworthy.

Faulkner, however, said he never read literary criticism and so was free to find in Beer's stories a source for learning his craft.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips: A Diamond in Coal Country

At the end of July I spent a weekend with my widowed sister-in-law and her family in southern West Virginia--and it is only recently that my mind, forced to pay attention to other issues, has returned back to home. I asked for some glimpses into "uncanned history," and my sister-in-law and her sister very kindly obliged and took me to see two deserted coal towns, Thurmond and Kaymoor. Both sisters had lived in Thurmond when its population was down to fewer than 100. My sister-in-law used to flag down the Amtrak passenger train with her bandanna and then hop on to go to Philadelphia, where my brother picked her up to go down to the Jersey shore. To see Kaymoor we hiked nearly three miles up a mountain. Along with their mother, they introduced me to the world of coal--a lot different than the far easier worlds of farming and suburbia in southeastern and south-central Pennsylvania that I had grown up in.

When I came home I started digging into coal mining, the struggles of the United Mine Workers to unionize coal mining in Appalachia (a campaign that at least ended coal feudalism), the history of coal mining in the United States, who owns the land in Appalachia, and the history of the region and of its people. I also wanted to read novels from these endless mountains and happily came upon Gin Phillips' The Well and the Mine.

You don't need an interest in coal to read this book--The Well and the Mine will appeal to anyone who is interested in reading novels about families, raising children, housework, and everyday morality.

The story takes place in the coal mining region of northern Alabama, home region to Ms. Phillips, and is about the Moore family--a father, mother, two daughters, and a son. Ms. Phillips tells the story through the words of all five, which is a pleasure in itself. In this way -- unlike modern-day novels that function only as screenplays with scenic description -- The Well and the Mine gives us insight into the mind of each character and what they are thinking, including of each other.

The story takes place during the depression. It is hard to imagine a family in which the father works hard every day and it is still a struggle to put food on the family table. The Moores do better than others, because the father works a small farm and raises vegetables. They get milk from the family cow. Mrs. Moore puts up vegetables for the winter, and the family rarely eats meat, not even on Sundays. Their meals are composed of bread, which Mrs. Moore bakes, along with assorted vegetables, relishes, and fruit. They churn their own butter. Breakfast is biscuits. The book also describes Mrs. Moore's views of housekeeping--in contrast to those of her sister. (I love books that talk about housekeeping theories!)

It was a relief to spend time visiting, through this novel, with a functioning family. Far from being boring, as Tolstoy avers, it is fascinating to see how the Moores muster their strength to deal with the many difficulties they face, with the opportunities they have for doing both good and evil, with the changes each goes through as the family's youngsters grow older. This was a thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring read.

You can read about Gin Phillips here, and here she explains the origins of The Well and the Mine, her first novel. I will be watching out for the next.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Little Squirrels

Squirrels by Albrecht Durer, 1478-1521

See Louella at What Matters Most for a very ingenious method of seeing a squirrel up close and personal. And don't miss Mennonite Girls Can Cook, which she contributes to, for scrumptious recipes.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: Just a Reminder

Children on the Shore by Mary Cassatt, 1885

This is a favorite painting of Americans, undoubtedly of those, like myself, that spent summer vacations at "the shore." It reminds me of the happiest playtimes that children can have in freedom at the beach. Of course, parents need to keep a watchful eye that children don't stray or get into trouble in the water, but for the most part, unless a parent wants to join in the fun and assist in creating an ocean castle, fortification, or living burial ground, it is best that adults stay out of the way (applying sun lotion only and otherwise not worrying about clothes or sand or wet).

These two charming little girls are equipped with shovels and a bucket. A bucket is useful for carrying water and also for shaping sand for fortifications, but no other equipment is needed; clam shells are good shovels. My brother's family and I plunked our kids at a beach one afternoon with absolutely nothing, and they managed to play for four hours in perfect bliss.

There is so much going on at the beach--sand crabs, shells, the constant motion of the waves and whatever they bring up, the eating away of the sand around your toes and your castles as the tide comes up ever closer and then recedes, the seaweed, the clouds, the invitation to skitter and slide in the shallow surf, gulls catching fish, gull political conventions, sandpipers fretting, instant relief from heat in an ocean that always surprises, skate and fish remains, boats going by, holes that fill up with water from the bottom, sand sharks, fishermen, mud pies that need to be made, the ocean breeze, and constant noise of surf and animals and wind and jabbering with friends about what you will build and how, with improvisation along the way.

And the beach accommodates children of all ages together in an ensemble of play. Here are photos of my brothers and two friends playing on the shore. The littlest one there (on the right), my youngest brother, never left it, living his adulthood on the Florida eastern coast. At the beach he was always and thoroughly absorbed. If you have access to a beach and young kids, take advantage. They have a ball--you have a rest. Mother beach takes over.

Happy summer, everyone!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Clothes that Bespeak Femininity

Keri Russell in The Magic of Ordinary Days.

I love the clothes that Keri Russell wears in the Hallmark movie, The Magic of Ordinary Days. Russell wears cotton blouses that are, in fact, exquisitely cut to fit, with fine flowery prints and beautifully cut dresses also with flower prints.

A lively print shirt dress with accompanying sweater.

The dresses all fit to a T, so that although Keri Russell is alluring, she is always dressed modestly. Of course, few of us are as beautiful as Russell, but I think most women would look better in clothes like these than in many of the outfits I see on the street or the grocery store, which often are either sexy but not necessarily feminine, or are unfeminine by virtue of being sex-less.

A superbly cut red skirt with a red and green flower print blouse that reminds me of Liberty of London prints available at Purl Soho.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: "I Am Going to See Grandma"

I Am Going to See Grandma by William Merritt Chase, 1889

American impressionist painter William Merritt Chase created this pastel of his two-year-old daughter, Dorothy, as her mother buttons her coat in preparation for a visit to her grandmother, who lives cross-river in Brooklyn.

Needless to say, this is a beautifully rendered image. The room's furniture and rug both frame and point us to the mother and her child. The beautifully harmonized colors unify the well-established but cheerful surroundings that lack the oppressive darkness one often associates with Victorian interiors.

Click on the painting to see it in a larger size and get a good look at little Dorothy's expression. Although she is excited, as the title tells us, Dorothy is patiently standing still while her mother primps her coat so all is in order for grandma's inspection. But the tilt of her head and her half-smile show she's also enjoying the joke: "I see you drawing me getting ready to see Grandma, Daddy!"

Monday, July 12, 2010

Creating a Mary Garden

In this medieval painting Mary gives the Baby Jesus a flower. Strawberries, signifying Fruitful Virgin, grow in the raised garden behind them.

(I realize this is a little late, but consider it early for next spring!)

The Mary Garden is a tradition from the Middle Ages, when gardens were created with flowers and shrubs that all signify names of the Virgin Mary or her attributes. Medieval gardens were usually small and enclosed and featured trellises like the one in the painting above.

If you have a garden, most likely numbers of the flowers and shrubs you have planted signify names of Mary or her attributes, such as humility (violet) and purity (lily), or also her eyes (forget-me-nots) or her heart (begonia), or even an event like Easter (forsythia, known as the Easter Bush), the Flight into Egypt (lavender), or a Lenten rose.

A Mary garden in Australia, compliments of Under Her Starry Mantle.

A Mary Garden gives praise to Mary and also invites us to contemplation, especially if it is centered around a statue of Our Lady. Mary gardens are traditionally enclosed. But even if you are not able to strictly create a Mary garden, it is a lovely thought to know the religious meanings of the plants that you may already have. In my garden, for instance, I have hydrangeas and was very happy to learn that they mean Ave Maria. They sit next to forsythia, the Easter Bush, and a rose bush, meaning Mary's Glory, and in front I have petunias (Lady's Praise).

To learn all about Mary gardens, you can go here and here and to see a beautiful Mary garden in Annapolis, go here.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: Mary's Flowers in the Portinari Altarpiece

Still Life in the center of the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, 1476-1479.

Flowers, in two vases next to a wheat chaff and surrounded by strewn violets, form the lower section of the frame for the image of the Infant Christ in this large triptych that now resides at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy. The iconography of this still life points to the underlying theme of this Nativity scene: the Virgin Mary and her relationship to Christ and Christ's relationship to us through His Passion.

The exquisitely painted flowers each have a meaning:
The lily was a symbol of Mary and her purity. The stalk represented her religous mind, the leaves her humility, and the flower her mercy. The lily, it was believed in the Middle Ages, had first grown from tears that Eve shed as she fled the Garden of Eden. There are two lilies here on one stalk, with the number two signifying Christ's dual human and godly nature.

Also in the vase are three irises, white and blue for purity and heavenliness and three perhaps for the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The iris was itself a symbol of light and hope, but its leaves, seven in number here, signify the seven sorrows of Mary:
The Prophecy of Simeon over the Infant Jesus. (Gospel of Luke 2:34)
The Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family. (Gospel of Matthew 2:13)
The Loss of the Child Jesus for Three Days. (Luke 2:43)
The Meeting of Jesus and Mary along the Way of the Cross. (Luke 23:26)
The Crucifixion, where Mary stands at the foot of the cross. (Gospel of John 19:25)
The Descent from the Cross, where Mary receives the dead body of Jesus in her arms. (Matthew 27:57)
The Burial of Jesus. (John 19:40)

The columbine in the clear glass, with the light shining through in the left of the glass, symbolizes the Holy Spirit, or the Divine Spouse.

The three carnations peeking out over the rim of the glass symbolize love, and their number symbolizes the Trinity. It was believed that the carnation first grew from the tears of Mary for Christ.

The violets symbolize faithfulness, humility, and chastity.

The meanings of these beautifully rendered flowers are part of the great symphony of van der Goes' painting, to which we are called as participants.

Portinari Altarpiece central panel.

The wheat chaff and the liturgical garb of some of the angels point to the Eucharist, in which we partake of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who sacrificed his life for our sins in the Passion. The Passion is the invisible theme of the painting, as shown in the solemn visage of Mary, who foresaw Christ's Passion from the beginning, and the pious stance of Saint Joseph and the angels, as if in preparing to receive Holy Communion. The empty shoe before Joseph is a reminder of God's words to Moses on Mount Sinai before the burning bush: Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place you are standing is holy ground."

Nevertheless, even though this painting is "hallowed ground," we, like the shepherds, are invited to join in this scene, which is not at our eye level or above us, but is slanted toward us, a beckoning to bear the sorrows of Mary for her Son and to join in the sacrifice of the Eucharist.

You can see all panels of the Portinari Altarpiece here. Van der Goes painted the altarpiece in Flanders on commission for the Sant d'Edigio chapel in the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, Italy.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Some People Struggle Very Hard to Keep Their Families Together

Winter's Bone 17-year-old heroine, Ree Dolly, with her younger brother and sister.

Winter's Bone, based on the novel of the same title by Daniel Woodrell, won the Sundance Festival Grand Jury Prize this year. Set in the Ozarks of southeastern Missouri, the film, directed by Debra Granik, tells the story of Ree Dolly, daughter in a family heavily involved in producing the highly addictive drug, crystal methamphetamine, or "crank." Because her father has jumped bail and signed over title to the family's land and house to pay his bond, the 17-year-old Ree vows to find him to keep a roof over the head of her remaining family: her brother and sister and her mother who has slipped into catatonic mental illness.

The sacrifice Ree is willing to bear, her determination, and the pain she suffers in her search are difficult to comprehend. One wonders that she has not followed her mother's road into obliviousness.

I suspect that the cruel codes of a criminal drug culture are the same everywhere, no matter who is involved, and no matter what the drug. The story could have been taken place in any city in the U.S.A.

What distinguishes Winter's Bone is that the setting is one most Americans are not familiar with and have seen little of in film; we have not been inured to it. Far from milking the sterotype of "hillbilly" though, the film forces us to confront real human beings, their faces taut with conflicting emotions--compassion and cruelty--who are trapped. We are forced to take in this reality in a profound way because there is no Hollywood gloss, no stylization, no pulling back from the harshness, no attempt to draw attention to acting, no artistic flourishes for the sake of artistic flourishes--the film is entirely at the service of the subject. While Winter's Bone revolves around violence-- both the threats and the results of it, we do not see much violent action per se. The removal of violent acts from the film eliminates, it became clear as I thought about it, a major method of Hollywood gloss that functions to anaesthetize the audience. There is also no unrelenting drive to doom--another Hollywood method to distance us from what we are seeing.

I have seen many films, some of which changed my life. I have seen many sad films, the postwar Italian realist films being among the saddest. No movie has ever moved me as much as Winter's Bone. The only film that it calls to my mind is Charles Burnett's independent sleeper of 1977, Killer of Sheep, which explores the life of an African American family in Watts.

I know that Winter's Bone reflects a harshness that is the life for a sizable swath of rural Americans. For a documentary glimpse of this world, which proves that Winter's Bone is not "stretching things," you can see on You Tube Diane Sawyers' "Hidden America: Children of the Mountains," which first aired in February 2009.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: Now Let Us Praise Flower Sellers

At the Florist by Childe Hassam, 1889

In Paris in the years 1888 and 1889, Childe Hassam created a series of paintings of flower sellers at their work. At the time, the flower sellers congregated around the Bastille. At the Florist is so beautiful pictorially, it nearly takes your breath away. (Click on a painting to see it better in a larger size.) I love that Hassam has painted the very young flower sellers wrapped in the same white as the flowers themselves. The one girl whose face we see has the feature and aura of a cherub from an Italian Renaissance painting. The same white wrapping is picked up in the cap of the maid accompanying her mistress to the florists.

The Flower Seller by Childe Hassam, 1889.

In this painting, Hassam highlights the relationship between the two girls in the painting: the flower seller and the girl walking with her mother. The flower girl looks imploringly at the younger girl, and one assumes that she wants the child to ask her mother to buy her flowers. The younger girl meanwhile is fascinated by the flower seller. Either she is looking at the flowers, but more likely she is apprehending the flower seller as a young girl, like herself, but in a startlingly different position than herself; the flower seller has no childhood, having been hurled into adult activities for reasons of family poverty or even loss of family. The mother meanwhile ignores the flower seller and is hustling onward. I find it noteworthy that in the painting Hassam's shadowing of the heads of all three figures makes it appear almost as if each has a nimbus. In the left middle ground is the figure of a mother and child, the mother clearly from the working class. "There but for the grace of God go I."

Flower Girl by the Seine by Childe Hassam, 1889.

In this painting again, Hassam is focusing on the contrast between the flower seller and the flower buyer. As can be seen from umbrellas carried by those who have already passed, it is raining, but the flower girl lacks cover. She is looking at the woman in black with her black umbrella, who has just bought flowers now held by her daughter. We have little doubt that the flower seller as she gazes at these two is pondering the difference in their stations in life.

Parisian flower sellers were organized. One hundred years before Hassam painted the subject, the flower sellers of Paris put forward a Cahiers de Doleances (Register of Grievanes) to the Estates-General (spring 1789--the year of the French Revolution) to protest the dismantlement of the flower sellers' association in 1777. The cahiers begins:

The freedom given to all citizens to denounce abuses that press on them from all sides to teh representatives of the nation is doubtless a certain omen of an impending reform. Confident of this, the flower sellers formerly forming the community of the female sellers of flowers and bouquets of flowers of the city and suburbs of Paris dare to address themselves to you our lords [the Estates General]....

Heretofore, flower seller candidates had to pay a fee to join the flower seller association, which had been formed in 1735 "through the kindness of Louis XV." The association's banning in 1777 under the laissez-faire doctrine of Finance Minister Anne Robert-Jacques Turgot, caused a leap in the number of flower sellers and hence a commensurate decrease in each woman's share of the market, "as the number of consumers does not increase proportionally" to the growing number of sellers. This was causing problems within the flower selling community:

The lure of thee earnings, however, limited as they are and even more a strong propensity to idleness, encourages a crowd of young peole of the fair sex to practice the profession of the supplicants, and since their profession cannot feed them, they seek the resources they lack in licentiousness and the most shameful debauchery. The supplicants' cause is also that of morality.

The flower sellers community particularly directed its cahiers to the Third Estate (the elected representatives), who are "friends and brothers and it is to them that it falls to plead the cause of the destitute."

The supplicants will not cease to send wishes to heaven for the preservation and prosperity of the representatives of the nation.
Signed, The said merchants, represented by Madame Marl, syndic of the community.

Source: Doleance particulieres des marchandes bouquetieres fleuristes chapeliers en fleurs de la vile and faubourgs de Paris in Charles-Louis Chassin, Les Election and Les cahiers de Paris en 1789, Vol. 2, pp. 53-57, found in The French Revolution: A Sourcebook, by Philip G. Dwyer and Peter McPhee.

I do not know what happened, or if the flower sellers that Hassam painted were organized into a legal association.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Can Small Towns in America Be Revived?

Church in a New England Village by Childe Hassam, 1901.

Childe Hassam (1859-1935)was a prolific painter and it seems painted nearly every place he came across in his long career: cities, seascapes, scenes from rural France, Paris, Italy, England villages, London, the western United States, gardens, people in parks, people at work, children. Among my favorites are his pictures of small town or town life, mostly in New England and Long Island.

Of course, when Hassam painted these works, many more Americans lived in small towns than they do today. In 1900, for instance, 10% of Americans lived in towns of between 1,000 and 4,000 people, and another 54% lived in hamlets or farms of less than 1,000 people. From 1900 onward, though, people were leaving rural areas heading for the cities; the decades of largest migration to the cities were in the 1930s, as farmers lost their land, as documented by Dorothy Lange and many others, and in the 1950s.

Today 17% of Americans live in small towns (categorized as between 1,000 and 5,000 people), and only 6.5% of Americans are involved in farming. However, since 1970, reports the Carsey Institute, the decline in population of small towns has begun to reverse, with the most growth in the 1970s and 1990s. Factors in this turnaround include retirees moving to rural areas where real estate and the standard of living are cheaper, immigration, and revival of rural areas with recreation attractions and what the Carsey Institute calls "amenities." Generally, new industries have not come to small towns that were once centered around textile mills, furniture making, and other manufacturing that have since gone south or overseas as a result of globalization.

End of the Trolley Line, Oak Park, Illinois, by Childe Hassam, 1893. Oak Park is now a suburb of Chicago.

Nevertheless, small town life remains attractive to many people. The small towns of yesteryear tended to be organized around a single economic enterprise, which was matched with a culture that was for the most part culturally homogeneous. This is no longer the case, as people from the highly urbanized New England and Mid-Atlantic states move south, southwest, northwest, or north, and immigrants are moving into the American heartland without stopping first in the big cities.

I am hoping that one factor that boosts a revival of the small town is the ability to telecommute. A friend of mine picked up stakes from the burgeoning Washington, D.C., metropolitan area a new years ago and now runs a successful business, based mostly on clients in the D.C. area, from her home in a small town in Ohio, where she is close to family and a short walk from the bank, the town library, and the post office. The ability to grow small businesses is a critical factor in keeping small towns alive and growing.

Provincetown Grocery Store by Childe Hassam, 1900.

Small towns are also reversing their decline with the construction of new highways that permit distance commuting for those who work in metropolitan areas, but want to stay or move to a small town. It would be interesting to find out if the growing "eat local" movement has helped small town life by helping farmers.

The Great Plains and central Midwestern states still continue to see an exodus, particularly of young people, as the rural economy continues its decline, even with a Homestead Act passed a few years ago that gives tax incentives and other benefits to people who move into these areas and set up small businesses.

One of the best known book about small town life is Winesburg, Ohio (1919) by Sherwood Anderson, a book I dearly loved when I read it decades ago. I also enjoyed Cold Sassy Tree (1984) by Olive Ann Burns. And there are the well-loved Mitford books by Jan Karon. Do you have a favorite book about small town life?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Homes Are Now Shrinking in the U.S.A.

Grandmother's Doorway by Abbot Fuller Graves, 1900.

The size of new single-family homes completed last year dipped to an average 2,438 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders trade group, which analyzed Census data, as reported in the Wall Street Journal June 14.

The average home size peaked in 2007 at 2,521 square feet, after rising straight for three decades. Builders are now constructing smaller, less ornate homes to produce homes at prices that compete with the prices of foreclosures, which have not abated. Now, more than 50% of new homes have three bedrooms, rather than four, five, or more, and only 24% have more than three bathrooms.

The McMansion recalls the larger homes of the Victorian era, but without the Victorian charm--turrets, bay windows, and those beautiful wrap-around porches--and without all the children. The result, I always felt, was empty space and loneliness for those inside.

The Victorian house, which combines space with coziness in its rooms, lots of windows, additional rooms "outside" on the first-floor porch, and sleeping porches in the back for sleeping outside in the summer.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the Victorian house was on the wane, as the domestic labor market dried up. According to historian Witold Rybczynski in his fascinating book, Home: A Short History of an Idea, homes had to be reduced in size so that one woman could clean them. These were homes for a growing middle class-- growing from people coming in from farms and also immigrants coming up in the world from their start in city tenements. This led to floor plans like that shown here, a home in which there was not a lot of space for guests or family members outside the nuclear family, as in this Sears floor plan.

Modern Home No. 64, from the Sears Modern Home Mail Order Catalogue, 1908 to 1913--a home one woman could keep clean.

I think the shrinkage in homes is all to the good, a downsizing from a prosperity that relied on credit cards; homes seemed to balloon with the debt.