Thursday, December 12, 2019

Memory Lane

This morning I was answering an email in which someone asked me something about Christmas in Ireland. I told her about our first Christmas here when we lived in Ballinrobe and how it was one of the best Christmas Eves I have ever had. Nothing at all spectacular happened and yet it stays in my mind and brings me a sense of joy and peace when I think about it even now.

It was a dark and drizzly evening when we set out on a walk that evening after supper. Everything closes early on Christmas Eve anyway, and the streets were deserted. It was just us, the drizzle, and the Christmas lights strung all around the town. The windows of the shops and businesses had low lighting on, so the Christmas displays could be seen and enjoyed. It was so quiet and so beautiful. We walked for a while and then went home and had cocoa.

When I think of that night, I am reminded of how my approach to the festive season has changed from what it was years ago. When I was in academia, it was wonderful to be able to turn my attention to getting into Christmas baking and stitching. For the majority of my academic life, I was in institutions that were on a term system, so we were done by this time of year and I was free to enjoy the run-up to Christmas. We went bck just after the new year, which suited me just fine. When I moved to a university that ran on a semester system, I was not done until a couple of days before Christmas, which I hated. I felt like there was never enough time to really get into it and do all I wanted to do. Even though we ditched a big meal on Christmas Day over 35 years ago, in favour of munchies that could mostly be prepared ahead of time, there was a lot I was doing in the days before Christmas itself.

As I think about that lovely evening in Ballinrobe, I see how different I am now. Instead of lamenting that I do not have time to do everything, I have happily done less and less each year. I would be really annoyed and unhappy if I felt like I had to do all of the things I used to do. I loved it then and now I wouldn't. I suspect that had I been forced to do Christmas then the way I do now, I would've hated it at the time, even though I love it now.

I have often thought about how busy I used to be in general and how much I was doing. For a time in grad school, I was setting the alarm for 2 am and putting it across the room, so I would have to get up to turn it off. Then I would begin my day. I was tired all the time, but I was also energised in a weird way. I was doing a lot of stuff and it was work I am still proud of. But there is no way I would want to be that busy now. I seem to value peace, quiet, and life in the slow lane more and more as the years go by and that is especially the case during the festive season. I am grateful that I am able to have that kind of life at the moment.

I recently read a book about the Christmas experiences of British people. I was struck by how many of them hated Christmas, until they were in a situation in which they could not mark the day as they usually did. For some, they were in a place where Christmas wasn't a thing, so there were no expectations. For others, they could not spend the day with the people they usually did, so they made arrangements with others or spent the day alone. Some people found themselves unable to afford the usual Christmas 'stuff' so had to get creative. In every case presented in the book, these people discovered that, when done the way they wanted to do it instead of how they were expected to do it, Christmas could be enjoyable. That's the key, I think--doing what makes you happy, whether that's being busy or slowing down. Each has worked for me at different times in my life, but that's probably because I was doing things my way and not telling myself what I 'should' be doing.

Years ago I read an article written by a woman who struggled with this. She was overwhelmed every year--exhausted and miserable. She decided that she wanted to enjoy Christmas, too, so she read some self-help stuff and set about following the suggestions given for simplifying the holiday season. Turns out, she was still miserable, because she missed some of the stuff she used to do. She realised that the key was deciding what was important to her and what wasn't, so she could keep the former and stop doing the latter.

Some years have been tough for various reasons. One year, Bill was sick at Christmas. Before that, one of our cats died a week and a half before Christmas and our dog died exactly a week after the cat. Needless to say, none of us felt like celebrating anything that year. It has not always been fun. But by and large, I have always enjoyed this time of year. My priorities have changed, and my way of 'celebrating' looks nothing like the usual images and nothing ike they used to, but that's OK. I hope that, whatever your December looks like and whether you celebrate the season (cultural, natural, or religious) or not, you are able to be engaged in the activities that bring you joy with the people you most want to be with.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Wednesday Words of Wisdom

'Home is a place in the mind.'
            --Maeve Brennan in The Visitor

Tuesday, December 10, 2019


We don't really exchange Christmas gifts anymore. We send a few cards and make a donation to Animals in Need, but other than that, the only gifts we give are a few things we send to our daughter. There are new customs regulations for things going to the US, so when I sent her a parcel a couple of months ago, it took 5 weeks to arrive. I sent the Christmas parcel a couple of weeks ago and hoped it would get there in time. This time it only took a week.

Here are  few of the festive things I made for her:
The pattern for this coaster was in a magazine she'd sent me last year. I planned to make it for her this year and when she sent me a Rudolph ornament that says, 'Mom' a couple of months ago, it seemed particularly appropriate. We have a thing about Rudolph in our family.

I always make her some kind of blue Christmas tree. When she was small, we lived in an apartment that was at the end of a cul-de-sac. There was a sort of platform on each building above the door and at Christmastime they'd place trees strung with blue lights on these. Every evening as it would start to get dark, she'd look out of her bedroom window, which gave her a view of the whole street, and would call out, 'The blue trees are on, Mom!' when the lights would be turned on.

This year, I had a metal piece from a deconstructed bracelet I picked up at a charity shop in Ballina when we were there a couple of months ago and I wanted to use that. I went back and forth about how to make the tree, but when I found a 'posh scrap' of roving, I opted to needle felt it. I'd used some of the same roving a couple of years ago to make her an ornament, so the tree will match.
I used other beads and bits from deconstructed necklaces found in charity shops to embellish. The roving has some sparkly strands in it that catch the light. I like the wonky shape that resulted when I did the embroidery.

This is the the other ornament I made for her with the same roving, which you can see a little better:
I also made her a hat, using a pattern a friend had sent me a few years ago for what she calls a pocket hat. It's made in ribbing, so is very stretchy, but when not on a head, is very compact, so it scrunches up to fit in a pocket. During the summer, I found a single skein of a very soft and fluffy bright blue yarn with a metallic thread wrap in a charity shop. I bought it knowing I'd make something for her with it and eventually I decided on the hat. I have just a small scrap ball left from the skein, so it was the perfect project for the yarn.
So I'm all done with the Christmas stitching. It's a very quiet and simple time of year, so I am very much enjoying listening to music, A Christmas Carol in various permutations, and just being during my best time of the year.

I hope you're enjoying the time of year, too.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Wednesday Words of Wisdom

This was a Pace e Bene email a few days ago:

"A blackbird found a large piece of food in the village and lit out into the sky with the food in its beak. A flock of his brothers chased after him and raucously attacked the food, pulling it from his beak. The blackbird finally let go of the last piece and the frenzied flock left him alone. The bird swooped and dived and thought, 'I have lost the food but I have regained the peaceful sky.'"

—Sufi Story

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Last of the November Books (and Plays): Irish Authors

I read the work of some Irish authors last month, all of which I enjoyed a lot.

The River Capture by Mary Costello
I’ve read this author’s previous books, which are short story collections, and enjoyed them a lot. So when this novel came up as I was scrolling through the list of new e-books at the library website, I borrowed it. It’s a beautifully written book, but not a straightforward narrative.

Luke O’Brien is 34 and in a bit of a liminal state. He is really, really into James Joyce, particularly the character of Leopold Bloom. He is on a career break from his job at a boy’s school in Dublin and living alone at the family farm, his mother and elderly aunt having died a few years before. He had thought he might write a book about Joyce while on this break, but he hasn’t even started and his two years are almost up. Soon, he will have to decide what to do.

In the first part of the book, we learn about Luke and what led up to this point in his life, while at the same time, moving through his day-to-day life with him. Then Luke hits a crisis point and he has either an epiphany or a delusional episode or perhaps a bit of both. At this point, the narrative structure changes. The account of Luke’s activities is mixed in with accounts of where his mind is going as he is engaging in these activities. It is as though someone is observing and reporting. I suspect that someone who is at least familiar with James Joyce would have gotten more out of that section of the book than I did, but even though I am without any knowledge (or particular interest) in Joyce’s work I could get the general idea. At the very end of the book, there are a couple of pages written in the first person from Luke’s point of view.

I found this to be a strange book in some ways, but a good one nonetheless.

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume
I discovered this book in the e-book section of the library website. This is the description provided:

‘Struggling to cope with urban life – and with life in general – Frankie, a twenty-something artist, retreats to the rural bungalow on ‘turbine hill’ that has been vacant since her grandmother’s death three years earlier. It is in this space, surrounded by nature, that she hopes to regain her footing in art and life. She spends her days pretending to read, half-listening to the radio, failing to muster the energy needed to leave the safety of her haven. Her family come and go, until they don’t and she is left alone to contemplate the path that led her here, and the smell of the carpet that started it all.
Finding little comfort in human interaction, Frankie turns her camera lens on the natural world and its reassuring cycle of life and death. What emerges is a profound meditation on the interconnectedness of wilderness, art and individual experience, and a powerful exploration of human frailty.’

It is a slightly weird, but oddly compelling book. This is not a book with a neat and tidy ending, but that is as it should be. Since it’s not a neat and tidy book, such an ending would be out of place.

The writing is excellent. The book is structured in mostly short paragraphs and we move back and forth in time, which is a reflection of Frankie’s disjointed thoughts.

Big Maggie by John B Keane
I was scrolling through the e-book section of the library website and this title appeared. When we first got to Ireland, a theatre in Dublin was staging this play and had ads on the radio, so I remembered the name. It sounded intriguing, so I borrowed it. To say that I liked it wouldn’t be quite right. It’s a very powerful piece of work, but it did sometimes leave me breathless thinking about the sadness of a life spent existing instead of living and with the anger of what societal expectations and repressive religious ideologies.

When the play opens, it is the 1960s in rural Ireland. We are at the funeral of Walter Polpin, who died shortly after his 60th birthday. His widow, Maggie, is happy enough at this turn of events. He was a jerk, who treated her and their kids badly. One of the kids, the oldest daughter, Kate, was daddy’s favourite and she is sad about his death. The others, Mick, Maurice, and Gert (in order of their ages), don’t seem as pleased as Maggie, but like her feel liberated. Their feelings are short-lived, however, when Maggie makes it clear that Walter signed over the farm and their shop to her, so they won;t get anything and she is now in control. The family dysfunction continues. The play ends with a soliloquy by Maggie in which we learn how she ended up where she finds herself, and see that she is more than the unfeeling, angry, over-controlling woman portrayed throughout the play.

The themes Keane addresses in this work include family relationships, gender roles, the culture of rural Ireland in the 1960s, the harm dome by the Catholic church, freedom from societal expectation and the price one pays for going against the grain, even unwillingly.

Moll by John B Keane
After reading Big Maggie, I was interested in more of Keane’s work, so went back to the e-book section of the library to see what they have. This was available, so I borrowed it. Like Big Maggie, this play revolves around a strong woman, but this play, unlike the other one, is very funny. Two curates and a canon live together in the parish of Ballast. It is 1971 and the move to decimal money has been the cause, at least in their opinion, of their trusted housekeeper deciding to marry a guy from New Jersey, USA and move there with him. Unaccustomed to doing anything for themselves, the situation is dire and they are eager to replace her as quickly as they can. They hire Moll, who comes with at least one excellent reference. Moll has ideas about how things need to be. The canon, who is the senior of the three priests, is delighted by how things unfold. The other two, not so much. The two curates are way out of their league, of course and Moll knows what she’s doing, so she runs things her way.

I've started my December pile, which contains a few seasonal collections I definitely want to read this month, along with a couple of recent finds that I'm eager to dive into. And who knows what will strike my fancy as we move through the month. I've stopped requesting library books for the time being, so I can read some of the books I have at home.

Happy reading!

Monday, December 2, 2019

A Bit of Mystery

Yesterday I posted the first of the books I read in November. I'm continuing that today with the mysteries I read last month.
Three Bags Full by Leonie Swan translated from German by Anthea Bell
I found this book on a cart of books for sale at the Central Branch of the Donegal Library when we went to Letterkenny one dy. Actually, Bill found it and pointed it out to me.
I loved the cover and when I read what it was about, I knew it was coming home with me, even though I wasn't totally sure I would like it. It was a good decision, because I loved it. It was funny and actually quite a bit more substantive than I would have thought from reading the dust jacket. It's very philosophical and even a bit ethnographic.
One day, a flock of sheep in the fictional Irish town of Glennkill discover their shepherd dead--and foul play appears to be involved. The sheep, lead by the smartest sheep, Miss Maple, are used to books that their shepherd would read to them. They decide that they are going to find out what happened, so they begin to try to figure out the story and solve the mystery, using what they know of how stories work to assist their thinking. Along the way, they have to figure out human behaviour (and notice how often it is like that of sheep) and determine what is the nature of human reality. 

Bodies in the Library by Marty Wingate
This is the first book in a new cosy mystery series featuring Hayley Burke. I found it in the e-book section of the library website and I’m hoping they will have subsequent books as they come out. This one was published in 2019, but I’m not sure if that’s the regular book, the e-book, or both.

Hayley Burke has a new job as curator of the First Edition Society, located in Bath, where Jane Austen gets most of the literary attention. This is a library/society dedicated to first editions of Golden Age mystery books written by women, with Daphne du Maurier included, because the woman who founded the society (Lady Georgiana Fowling) liked her work, too. Lady Fowling also wrote a kind of fan fiction of her own, so those books are also included. Lady Georgiana has died and created her will so as to support the society, which doesn’t sit well with her greedy nephew, who has engaged in shady tricks to try to get the will overturned, driving off the first curator in the process. Ms Burke, already working at the Jane Austen Centre as a sort of PA gets the job with the help of a friend who is on the board. One problem for her is that she’s not familiar with Golden Age detective fiction. As she tells one of the other characters, her degree is in 19th century English literature—she read Trollope, not Tey. She does have some ideas for the society, though, most of which don’t sit well with the elderly secretary, Mrs Woolgar, who isn’t fond of new ideas. The resident cat, Bunter, is happy as long as his food is presented on time and the catnip mice keep coming. When Hayley discovers that a fan fiction writing group is in search of a meeting place, she offers them the use of the library. Mrs Woolgar is not pleased, especially when the leader of the group is found dead in the library one morning. What are the similarities between this body in the library and Christie’s? What would Miss Marple do?
This was a really fun read and I’ll be reading more as the books come out, if I have access to them. The author’s website says she also writes a cosy mystery series with a gardening theme, called The Potting Shed mysteries and a series called the Birds of a Feather mysteries.

The Lighthouse by P.D. James

Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh
After reading the PD James book, I felt like more detective fiction, so I turned to my e-reader and picked up where I left off In Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn series. This one was published in 1943, so it’s unsurprising that WWII features in the story. This one takes place in New Zealand at a resort spa, where the mud baths are thought to have healing properties. It is quite the opposite for one of the characters in the book as he meets his end in one of the boiling mud pits. The red flag marking the danger spot has been removed from its usual spot, so perhaps it was not a tragic accident. And who is the spy signalling from the hills?

Hope this first week of December has started off well!

Sunday, December 1, 2019

New Month, New Titles on Top of the Pile

One of the first things I did when I came downstairs this morning was to remove a few books from the top of the corner shelf where they'd been sitting for a few months. I'd found them in the local charity shop, bought them, and set them up there until December rolled around. Two are Christmas short story collections by Irish writers and one is called December. I'm not sure whether I'll like the latter or not, but I'll soon find out. I'm starting it today and if I don't like it, it'll be a good one for the wee free library. In fact, I doubt I'll keep it even if I do like it, so one way or another, it'll end up there for someone else to enjoy when I'm done with it.

I ended November with a couple of Christmas e-books borrowed from the library.

Christmas Cheer by Vicky Howard
I checked this out from the e-book section of the library. It’s a nice little book of Christmas quotes, recipes, and cute illustrations—very enjoyable to look at while listening to Christmas carols.

A Very British Christmas: Twelve Days of Discomfort and Joy by Rhodri Marsden
This book is about British Christmas traditions and how people there experience them. Once I started, it did not take long to realise that I needed a tissue handy because I could not stop laughing and I needed something to wipe the tears from my face. Some of the stories people shared were really funny and the author also had a witty way of writing. There are some serious and/or sad stories included, but mostly it was really funny. One thing that interested me in reading people’s stories was how several of them really disliked Christmas when they felt the pressure of doing things the ‘right’ way, but ended up having to do Christmas very differently for whatever reason—lack of money, being in a place where Christmas isn’t celebrated, or not being with the usual people, for instance. In each story, these people discovered that they could like Christmas if they did it their way. As someone who does not go for the ‘normal’ trappings of Christmas, I love that. I enjoyed this book a lot.

I also had an unexpected read with this one:
Kumihimo Endings: The Finishing Touch for Every Braid by Pru McRae
When I first read about kumihimo in a blog post over a year ago, I was intrigued and immediately went in search of more information. I discovered this author’s youtube channel and started watching. Then I got some disks and started playing around. Our approaches to kumihimo are different and while I love much of the work she showcases in her videos, I have never wanted to make the kind of finished pieces she demonstrates. Rather, I watch her videos because she explains things well and I’ve learned a lot about process by watching them. I find that I can relate to her experimental approach. One thing I’ve played with is endings. I quickly discovered that people usually buy or make jewellery fittings to finish their braids, whether beaded or not. These are often glued in, but sometimes wired in. With infrequent exceptions, I don’t like the way these look.  I like my braids to be about the thread or yarn I’m using to make them. I don’t bead them, although I might do some small embellishments at the ends. I just don’t like the look of a textile braid shoved into an end cap. I do like the tassels I can have at either end and I’ve usually left it at that, although I’ve experimented with some other beginnings and endings. When Pru McCrae posted a video about her new book on endings, I was curious about it. 

Every once in a while, I search the library website using certain keywords in order to see what new titles have been added to the system. Last year, when I searched for kumihimo, nothing came up. When I searched again recently, several titles came up, including this one. This is a great little book for anyone interested in kumihimo. I ended up surprising myself by reading it cover to cover. It is true that I will not use most of the information provided, but even reading those sections gave me a better understanding of the structure of kumihimo and also some possibilities on how to adapt some of these techniques to my own work. And there were a few sections that include techniques I will use. I expected to possibly find a page or two of this book interesting or useful, but I did not expect to have quite so much information contained in it, so that was a very happy surprise.

I'm not sure why I borrowed this one--I think I was intrigued by the concept:
Morning Glory on the Vine: Early Songs and Drawings by Joni Mitchell
In 1970, when she was considering what to give friends for Christmas, Joni Mitchell had some of her poems, song lyrics, and drawings made into a book.  Only a few copies were printed and it was never published widely until this year. I’ve never been a big fan of Mitchell, although I did have one of her albums in the 80s. Still, when I came cross the title in the poetry section of the library’s e-book pages, I figured I might as well have a look. 
I wasn’t that keen on it, to be honest. I liked one or two of the artworks. The poems were hard to read, because they were presented as photos of her handwritten pages, so sometimes words were hard to decipher. More than once, I misread something and it was only context that caused me to go back and re-read. There was apparently no editing because many words were spelled wrong in ways that would not be due to differences in British and US ways of spelling English words (she's Canadian, so I could see why those would happen and they wouldn't be misspellings, of course, either way). I recognised a few of her more famous songs, but I don’t know how many of the other handwritten pages consisted of song lyrics and how many were poems that didn’t become songs.

This was a wonderful book:
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

She writes beautifully and as she describes her journey of recovery and growing self-awareness, she also takes us back to the life she is recovering from. I could relate to some of that--I also used to drink too much. I never got to the point of seizures, as she did at one point, but had I kept drinking, I would have. I drank a lot, until one day, I decided I'd had enough of feeling like crap and stopped. I know that I'm lucky, because the day I decided to stop drinking, I made myself really feel and remember what I felt like--the nausea, the headache, the shakiness, the inability to do anything other than wait to feel better. Not only did I never crave a drink after that, but I actually felt repelled by the idea. That was 24 years ago. I suppose we all have to find what works for us in these situations. To her surprise, the author found herself back where she grew up--the very place she was so eager to leave a decade before. As she begins to pay attention to that world and place her attention on the landscape and wildlife around her, she begins to grow, heal, and find new ways of being. She found interests that surprised her and followed where they led her. I fell in love with Orkney as I was reading this book. It sounds like my kind of place--northern, remote, not many people, gorgeous landscape, windy, short summers, and plenty of cold. If I was younger, I'd be looking for ways to go live there. The book is worth reading for the nature writing alone.

I'll continue the November book list tomorrow, but in the meantime, I'm off to start December.