Monday, December 31, 2007

End of the year musings. So much to be thankful for. The sound of violin and viola that Rachel and Nick create, Rachel's face when she meets her students, Allen's beard, Mom's cheesecake (in spite of way too many calories), friends who e-mail from faraway home, keeping me part of their lives, the beautiful sun that seems to shine nearly every day, so far good health and a curious mind, my laptop which sustains me through good and bad writing days, our car that has two new tires, and libraries and museums everywhere.

The cusp tips though to some things I'm not thankful for. How could our government support waterboarding? Why haven't we signed the Kyoto Protocols? How dare the VA not provide the very best of care for returning vets. Everyday the newspaper reports violence, with gunfire a common solution, and the new year promises much talk about "the issues" in this presidential election year.

Yesterday we returned books to three libraries, and I saw homeless men sleeping behind the monumental sculptures on the grand boulevard leading to the Philadelphia Museum. It can dip down to 20 at night, yet some choose to live this way, I'm told. Free. They may choose to do so, but many suffer from mental illness as well. Are there enough beds in shelters?

We drove along the reservoir just off City Line and an older man, bundled up for winter, walked along the street, scattering bird seed as he ambled along the edge of the reservoir.

Generosity, compassion, kindness, peace. That's what I hope for the new year. And I wish good work days. Consideration for others. A sense of each day as a gift. Family time that nurtures each person. Appreciation for the wonderfully rich life that surrounds us and inspires us. OK and no boring movies. And maybe that my writing will go well. And if there is sadness in the coming year, which there will be, may it be surmounted in ways that heal the world.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

New Year's is coming closer, and with the turn of the year, we head south to Florida. Already I'm anticipating being back on the road and quiet days and warm sun. Already I'm letting go of family and friends, savoring these last few days, and watching the weather reports for snow. The news swirls far away, presidential campaign trails, murders and car crashes, the economic impact of high rate of foreclosures, all these seem issues from another country. Each morning I begin with writing, my characters have morphed into their own irascible selves, and the plot has shifted from mythology to history, 1840-1845, Scotland, the time of the potato famine and the infamous clearances.

On Christmas Eve, we went to the Free Philadelphia Library and found very useful books. Their system houses books in departments, each having some books freely circulate, while others, I guess among millions, are stored in places only librarians can enter. These books can only be read in the library. I found six essential books, so our requests were sent down somewhere via pneumatic tube. After a short time, we had the books and began pouring over them. Gold. Allen asked if we could check three of them out as I was writing a book. The librarian said yes! Once home, I checked on amazon to see if perhaps these books would be available, perhaps used on the secondary seller's market. Yes! $213 for one, $57 for another and $35 for a third. So I've skim read the three and later this week, it's off to Kinko's to photocopy select passages.

My sad conclusion -- internet doesn't really have all the research I need. But we'll be back in Philadelphia again in May. Now I know why so many writers thank librarians!

One tidbit from Linda Mahood's study. In the 1840s, syphillis had no cure. One solution in Scotland was to arrest those women suspected of prostitution, test them, brand them on the cheeks to warn others, and then isolate them on an island. Attempts were made to recruit doctors to work with them, but since most people felt syphillis could be "caught" on clothing, kisses, or breath, any doctor volunteering to search for a cure would also be branded on the cheeks so that others would be warned. No wonder few doctors volunteered. I'm not sure how this strand will work in yet, but one of my characters will carry those brands on her cheeks. Maybe.

No photos today. Just memories of a lovely winter day in Philadelphia, visiting the Friends of the Library bookshop and the massive library itself, and along a hall, finding an exhibit featuring pages from Godey's Lady's Book which was started by Louis A. Godey, a 26-year-old French expatriat, here in Philadelphia. Godey hired a female editor, Sarah Josepha Hale in 1837, a rare decision in that time. And then driving back home along the winding Schuylkill River Drive, sun sparkling, all's right with the world.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Upside Down Mermaid

This mermaid floats quite comfortably upside down,
entirely right in her watery world, scales flickering red,
carrying calla lilies so carefully at winter solstice.

Winged, she floats and soars in our imagination,
Transformed from the depths with her flowers
and innocent eyes and pink wings,
where up is down and right is left.
Direction doesn’t matter, nor age, nor place.
Only dark and light.

Every day her light filters everywhere,
like violin music weaving together the blue, blue water
and the blue, blue sky,
seamlessly, endlessly.
Even the night holds no terror.

This poem was inspired by a visit to Isaiah Zagar's Magical Garden, Philadelphia, December 2007.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Earlier this week, Lynda and I wandered through the American-Swedish Historical Musuem, headed to South Street for lunch at Govinda's, where Lynda ate soy perhaps for the first time, and then drove past several of the building-sized murals that have become a tourist attraction here in Philadelphia in the last several years.

Lynda kept telling me about the murals that glitter from glass tiles. We came to a complete stop at Isaiah Zagar's Magic Garden, miraculously open, and then toured his house, studio, and garden of more than earthly delights. Nearly every space in this rowhouse with sidelot garden was covered with art. Colorful tiles fired with Picasso-like drawings, earthy and exuberant, are all mixed together with chips from dishes, glassware, and found objects, from tires to vividly green and blue bottles to pottery and sculptures from Mexico.

I'm not doing justice to this amazing gallery, for every surface is covered: walls, ceilings, floors, doors, everywhere I looked, new vistas, ideas, themes resounded. Did I find a mermaid or two? Of course! We left awed. Here's an artist at 70 who uncompromisingly celebrates creativity.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Wednesday night, and all is well. I still can't quite adjust to the reality of Philadelphia. Where do all these people come from? Some 1.5 million people live in the City of Philadelphia proper. No matter what time of day or night we may venture out, the roads, byways and freeways are full. People are friendly but violence is an underlying theme.

Yesterday, we lunched at Larry's Steak Shop on 54th Street for the long-awaited Philly Cheese Steak sandwich. Imagine quick fried beef on a soft Italian roll, with melted American cheese and mushrooms with peppers. Add a generous dollop of Marinara sauce on top. One half of one of these footlongs is enough!

At the next table, two construction workers exchanged cop stories. Story 1: A mugger raced up to an elderly man, screaming, "Give me your money or I'll beat you up!" The elderly man, formerly a professional boxer, decked the would-be mugger with a neat right hook. When the police arrived, the young man was ready to be handcuffed.

Story 2: Another would-be robber broke into a bar just before closing. "Hands up!" he cried as he pointed a gun to the startled patrons. Five guns were quickly pointed at the would-be robber who made his move at a bar frequented by off duty cops. The robber in this case simply put his hands up.

If I compare crime rates in Philadelphia to Portland, Oregon, for example, the crime rates in Philadelphia seem to be driven by violence -- with higher rates for murder, rape, and assault. Portland, on the other hand, has significantly higher rates for burglery and auto theft. Crimes against person vs. crimes against property. Neither makes me sleep better at night.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

So who does Joseph Stella remind me of (see below). How about Henri Rousseau, painter of The Dream, 1910, who painted quite a bit earlier than Joseph Stella, who wasn't born until early 1940s. This image is from Wikipedia but I'm noticing the same vivid colors, the flat images, and a sense of innocence.

We're in Philadelphia now, the dreaded snow is not here, and we had a lovely first night with family, brisket and lots of talk. Gordy and Lynda came over and all is well. How strange it feels to be in a house again, with an upstairs and a downstairs and lots of different rooms. This morning, we'll have a real breakfast, bagels and whitefish, and I can do dishes and cook. We can walk around the block and return to the same place. Later we'll explore a little of the city and, I think, get Allen's mom a library card so we can bring home piles of books.

How strange it feels to not be working a regular job, to disconnect from the routine of Monday through Friday. Perhaps this feeling is more pronounced when we're in one place rather than traveling about. But I have my writing projects, and a developing story, so all is well. Allen says my current project should take me about three years, one year for drafting, then two more for editing. I fear I'm not that patient, but I agree about the one year for drafting, at between 400 and 600 words a day, but the story is developing AND I do have about 14,000 words so far! And yesterday I may have found a useful online writing critique group. All is well. May it be so for you! Beth

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

With each day that we head north, the temperature dips a bit more. Yesterday, the temperature hit 81 in Burlington, North Carolina, but this morning, in Fredricksburg, Virginia, the high is 55. And tomorrow, Philadelphia. We're traveling four hours a day, so the pace has picked up as we venture north. Atlanta (see above) overwhelmed us with its modern architecture and freeways (7 lanes in one direction).

We stopped in Atlanta at the High Museum to find two lovely exhibits, one of artifacts Josephine and Napoleon had collected, and the other, simply the Impressionists. Upstairs, my favorite was this painting by Futurist Joseph Stella in the 1920s of the Virgin, called Purissima. The bright colors and nature images remind me of Mexico. The simple evocative lines make me want to learn more about Stella, who according to the note at the museum painted several images of the Virgin, mixing sensuality with innocence. As I looked through some of his paintings online, I notice a real contrast between pastel, minimalist type paintings and these richer, vivid almost "primitive" style paintings. One critic says Stella's paintings of the Virgin mix pagan beliefs, a hold over from his Italian heritage, but that doesn't ring true to me and almost sounds anti-Catholic. At first I confused Joseph Stella with the more well-known Frank Stella, more a minimalist abstract painter. But I like Joseph Stella I think more because of the mood his paintings evoke, of reflectiveness and beauty and inward peace.

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to the next three weeks in a real house, with a real kitchen, upstairs and down. The writing on my current project continues to go well, and I seem to be following my characters as the story unwinds in the Orkneys, of all places! Be well and enjoy each day. Beth

Thursday, December 06, 2007

As we watch the weather beat up the West Coast, and with temperatures plummeting to 20 in Spokane, I'm feeling a little guilty about temperatures in the 80s predicted for Jackson, Mississippi as we move east to Philadelphia, adjusting our route to accommodate the weather.

I feel relieved to hear from friends that all is well, despite horrendous winds over 125 mph on the Oregon coast. The flooding along the I-5 corridor in Washington near Chehalis is enough to dampen anyone's travel spirits.

What else is new? I'm feeling rather at loose ends as former colleagues sweat out the last of Finals week back home. The weather and culture here conspire against a sense of reality -- southern accents sometimes hard to decipher, Cajun food, everyone called honey, dear, or sugar; welcoming smiles suggest genuine Southern hosptiality, grits at breakfast, my first sight of the mighty Mississippi, broad, blue and under a sunny sky; road signs that really say MOM'S DINER or BUBBA'S BAR-B-Q, and endlessly straight freeways through flat lands and fall leaves everywhere (fall leaves in December?).

I'm thinking of the many beautiful cactus gardens we visited in Tucson (including this one from the Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson), and the tremendous natural diversity we've seen on this trip. Perhaps I will adapt to retirement life -- and the discipline of writing every day. Make it a good week! Beth

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

I'm finally caught up, thanks to an excellent internet connection! Photos are up-to-date on webshots if you want to go take a look. Allen dared me to post this one, BUT since it will be my birthday in two days, AND my fortune cookie says, "Your dearest wish will come true within the month!", I couldn't resist posting my favorite picture here, taken while we hiked near Apache Junction in Arizona. I found this warning sign more compelling than those Park Service signs that say, "Protect the dirt. Don't step on the emerging ecosystems!" Beth

On this sunny day in Dallas, we hiked our feet off at the Dallas Museum of Art, spending most of our time in the Americas collection. We were fascinated to see a wonderful collection of vessels and bowls from Mogollon and Mimbres cultures here from the Southwest, as well as pieces from Peru (Moche and Paracas) and Mexico (Veracruz).

The two women shown here are from the Early Classic culture in Veracruz, Mexico, about 450-600 AD. The colors on their robes are clear red, but little information was available. A little searching on internet ties the elaborate costumes to a high status and suggests the women may have also had face tattoos to show a connection to the god of wind, BUT more information is needed here.

The Paracas mantle , also from Peru, is beautifully preserved with dazzlling colors and over 2,000 years old, with formalized images of condors embroidered throughout.

Another especially beautiful piece, one that brought a smile to our faces (and introduced a new culture), came from Ecuador, the Jama-Coaque culture of approximately AD 200-400. This jolly drinking vessel, possibly used for ritual, had bright blue and orange original paint still visible.

The tradition of compelling portraits can also be seen in this last vessel from the Moche culture in Peru (450-550 AD).

So we came home to the Harrison Suites, our hotel with kitchen, and are looking forward to a quiet dinner of chicken scallopine with rice as the sun sets over Dallas. Tomorrow we'll be in Louisiana. May your week go well. Beth

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Texas. Flat country. We traveled to Big Spring, Texas, on our way to the Dallas, Fort Worth area, with a winter storm filling the sky ahead of us. We took Route 176 the back way, a two lane straight highway through endless washes, cotton fields, oil rigs pumping right in the cotton fields, and cows wandering through sagebrush and grasslands, occasional signs saying EAT BEEF, the smell of oil surprising us, and the sunset behind us turning the sky red.

It was a good day for hiking into the bowels of the earth at Carlsbad Caverns. This national park (established in 1923) still allows anyone to take pictures of the fascinating formations, shields, staligmites, stalactites, pillars, walls of popcorn, draperies, and amazingly large caverns (see Hall of Giants above). We hiked about 800 feet down through the original entrance on a switchback trail, then along a trail throughout the Big Room the equivalent of 14 football fields or about 8 acres. Whew! Early visitors to the cave went down a ladder; in the 1920s, they climbed down wooden steps and then had to climb back up. Most visitors take an elevator 780 feet down and up. No matter how you arrive here, the views are dazzling.

A little information posted here and there helped us to understand whether native Americans knew about the cave or how they may have used it. Just above the natural entrance to the cave, a sign points out a large stone circle used for cooking, perhaps mescal. I found out online that archaologists estimate paleo Indians have been living in this area since 12,000 BCE, and that the Apache lived here as well. Pictographs have been found and dated some time in the Archaic period (6,000 BCE to 800 CE), and bits of sandals have been found at the bottom of the drop-off just past the entrance. Since caves are sacred to many native peoples, perhaps the cave was treated as an important site, regardless of whether it was explored as fully as we can today.

This morning the sunshine makes me bolt out of bed to an impossibly blue sky. Winter in Texas and the south. I wish you all a warm (if not sunny) week, though the USA Today map shows too much blue coming down from the north. Beth

Sources on the discovery of Carlsbad and the native American role there.