Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Thrifty Gypsy

Writing and teaching have swallowed me whole for a few days.  I'm trying to find time to finish an afghan I've been working on from odds and ends of yarn leftover from other projects.  I had to break down and buy a few skeins, but mostly, this one will be the thrifty girl's dream.  There's a particular young lady I've had in mind ever since I started this afghan.  She has a few Gypsy tendencies, so I think the bright colors will be just right for her.
The squares are nearly done.  Next, the strips and edging.  I'll show you when it's finished.  I am always looking for new patterns to crochet.  If you have any favorites, please share them with me.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Morning Inspiration

Here's a new poem I've been tinkering with this winter:

The History of Sorry

Morning Cheerios--
as good a time and place
as any for sorry.
Milk and the clink
of bowl and spoon
make everything
Saturday cartoon-
colored and solid
in a dog-walking, do-the-dishes,
plant-watering way.
No words can careen
out of control
in the gold of a sunbeam
or veer like the car
last night in the rain,
our angry faces reflected
pale in the windshield,
voices rising
as the Wah Sang take-out sign
on Chelmsford Street
flashed past, one long, gluttonous rush--
like a joke
or falling in love.

Back in the days and weeks
and years when we were new,
when lies were still
small and white
and few,
what shape did sorry take?
Maybe croissants in bed
and scrambled eggs.
I remember our necks
and legs and arms
forgave, and the room
slid sideways
in a mattress, six-pack,
skip-classes sort of way.

Cold cereal is for old 
love, the press of old
lies, sluggish blood.
No sugar now--
careful portions 
in profile
at the counter.
And yet, when the bowls
are empty,
I watch you clear
the counter and wipe
the granite clean,
taking care
with the juice cups
we bought at a junk shop
just two,
almost matching,
just enough.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


All my whining about the cold must come to an end.  Yes, it's still chilly, but look what I discovered today in the park beside the Old North Church in Boston.  

I also came across this small memorial built for the soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.  When the wind blows, the dog tags chime against each other and the brick walls shimmer.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dreams of Spring

As I went out for a walk today in the frigid New England air, I tried to have faith that spring will come soon.  My mind wandered back to this same time last week when we pedaled the boys' lovely, rusty bikes along a South Carolina beach, racing the dolphins as they arced through the waves just offshore. When I was a kid I never understood why adults complained so much about the cold.  This year I understand.  My middle-aged bones have been frozen since October. Thank heaven for warm friends, Earl Grey, crochet, the paperwhites Melissa gave me, and oatmeal with maple syrup.  They've coddled me through winter.  I can hold on until the forsythia blooms.   

Monday, March 23, 2009

Savannah: Vintage Paradise

This magpie is in love with Savannah and all of its sparkle, rust, and Spanish moss.  I'd been there once before a few years ago and found it charming, but this trip confirmed my crush.  Could I live there?  Absolutely.  I want a tiny cottage or carriage house, encrusted with paint and age, slightly crumbling, covered in wisteria.  I would most likely transform into a Southern Gothic writer overnight.    

Here are just a few of the places we visited that I know I'll return to:
  • The SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) Store for gifts and craft ideas
  • Gallery Espresso for people watching and pastry
  • Bull Street for beauty 
  • Vinnie Van Go-Go's for pizza and more people watching
  • Forsythe Park for everything a city park should be
  • The waterfront for tacky tourist fun and free praline samples
  • The Clothing Warehouse for vintage cowboy boots
  • The Savannah Bee Company for tupelo honey!
  • 24 E for amazing furniture and design at fantastic prices
  • The Paris Market and Brocante for all my glittery addictions
  • Broughton Street itself for window shopping, coffee, and even more people watching
  • The Gryphon Tea Room--only peeked in, but will have tea there next time!  The building itself is as pretty as a tea cake.
At the Paris market I scooped up grab bags of cheap but pretty beads and baubles for crafting.  I wanted to scoop up other things, too, like the vintage x-ray table, the giant carnival-light letters, the perfume originally concocted for Catherine de Medici, or the cafe table encrusted in oyster shells (actually, I think my friend Marlowe could whip one of these up in no time), but I was good. I kept in mind that we were flying home and shipping costs money, and we are trying to be thrifty. The beads and broken brooches were just enough sparkle to keep me smiling.  

My self control in Savannah meant that I could have fun the next day when Steve, Todd, and I went thrift-store shopping on Hilton Head.  Okay, so there may be twenty-nine golf courses on that eleven-mile island, but I think there are also at least that many charity shops.  I may be exaggerating slightly, but not much.  I also got to have some fun in my brother's amazing antiques shop, Damn Yankees.  More on Mark and Steve and their cat adventures very soon.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pinckney Island Hike

Todd and I visited my brother Mark and his partner Steve this past week down in Hilton Head, SC.  One of the highlights of the trip was a hike we took on Pinckney Island.  The contrast between the manicured "plantations" and golf courses of Hilton Head and the incredible natural beauty and diversity of Pinckney Island couldn't be more stark.  While lots of animals live on Hilton Head--alligators, ibises, turtles, storks, egrets, herons, etc.--it is a bit disconcerting to see them living on golf courses.  On Pinckney there is much less human intrusion.  I loved listening to the birds almost as much as watching them.  Coots and wood ducks can raise quite a ruckus.

Maybe what struck me most palpably about Pinckney Island was the range of textures and colors.  From palmettos and dried reeds to pines and Spanish moss, it is an endlessly fascinating place, even this early in the year.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Where's Toddo?

We've just returned from a trip to Hilton Head and Savannah.  I shot this photo in downtown Savannah.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Searching the Past

A few months ago I was invited to read at an event celebrating the cultural backgrounds of poets living in and around Lowell, Massachusetts.  Each of us was asked to read a poem about our own family's stories or traditions.  I realized as I prepared for the reading that even though my French-Canadian heritage on my father's side is a very important part of my identity, I have never written very much about it.  I began sifting back through memories I still have of my father and the stories he would tell us about growing up in Old Town, Maine.  Even though I spent many a Sunday afternoon around the table of my memere and pepere's kitchen in Old Town, the stories seemed like myths from a distant time and place.  Now that decades have passed since my father died, those old tales seem even more mythical, so I decided that I needed to try to write about them.  

Before I began drafting, I scoured the internet for history and pictures, focusing especially on records of logging on the Penobscot River, since I remembered my father telling my brother, sister, and me tales about the log drives.  The more I read, the more fascinated I became.  In my wanderings, I came across an amazing archive of photographs collected, organized, and cataloged by a group of former and current residents of French Island, a small river island that is part of Old Town.  The collection is called Nos Histoires de L'Ile, or Our Stories of the Island. Most of the photographs date from the late 19th century, but some are from as late as the 1930's and 40's.  I began looking up family names, hoping to find photographs of my grandparents or their parents.  Instead, I stumbled upon the photograph above, a picture of my father, John Thibodeau, serving as an altar boy in the 1940's.  Of course I have seen photographs of my father as a child before, but to find one on the internet nearly a quarter century after his death was a profoundly moving experience for me.  I felt like I was reaching back through time and loss and layers of the past--all the way back to who he was as a person--not just my father--but his own person, John, with most of his life yet to live.  Later that night I drafted this poem.  

The Log-Drive Lessons

For years before he died,
my father told the tales
of how he dove
when he was young 

beneath the drives 
with the Old Town boys
who learned to swim
in the dark and cold
under the massive logs
come down by the thousands
from the Penobscot's four fingers
to feed the pulp mills' 
sulphurous rolls.

There was no secret method:
just hold your breath, 
open your eyes
and search beneath the floating shoals
of spruce till sunlight shone
between two logs
and you could rise
through the surface,
streaming silver, a river
god, king
of summer, lord
of bark and pitch
and filthy water.

There was no going home
until you'd tried.
Boys who paused on the riverside
were tied round the waist
with rope like writhing bait
and tossed by the log drivers
or their own fathers
into the dark and cold.  
They never knew,
my father said,
how far they'd have to go,
how long their lungs
would have to hold
until they found the light
on their own
or the men instead would have to haul
them back to shore,
where they'd stand alone,
rope-burned and cold,
while the others dove
ever deeper, 
disappearing for countless stretches.

The shape and depth
of the lessons
fit no measure 
they'd learned in school,
where there was nothing to prove.
Here, on the river,
there were legends to forge
in the dark and cold,
like Lenny Cote,
whose eyes were the copper
of river water--he could
make it all the ways from the boom
at the mill to the dock
at the rail yard, diving
down and rising,
his body a needle
stitching the river's flow;
and Francis LaPierre
who pierced the river's skin
and held his breath longer than
anyone could ever know,
and then never found
the space or light or strength
to rise again.
My father and his friends
dove after him,
but he was gone,
leaving them to swim to shore,
leaving them a tale to tell,
a fate to count
as the measure 
of what they'd learned
beneath the logs,
how much they'd risk,
how much they'd lose,
how far they still had left to go.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

My Writing Partner

At the end of a very long day of teaching, having this guy asleep on my desk makes sitting down to do my writing work ever so much easier.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Of Fairy Tales and Feet

Children's Literature is perhaps my favorite course to teach to college students.  Often they have fallen away from the love of reading that they once cherished as kids, and sometimes this course helps them find it again.  Fairy tales, picture books like Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, chapter books like E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, and plays like J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan bring them back in some very palpable ways to the days and years when they were forming their identities.  Even when this course doesn't strike them on such a personal level, it gives them a chance to examine important social and political questions about literacy and the ways in which the adults in a culture view children and childhood (and thus, ultimately, themselves) at a given moment in time.

I started collecting beautiful editions of children's books with a view toward keeping them for a lifetime back when I was still a little kid.  I bought this edition of Snow White in the 1970s, and it is still one of my favorite books to this day.  A few years before, my grandmother had bought me an edition of Grimms' Fairy Tales.  I don't think she had ever actually read the Grimms' versions of any of these tales before because when she reached the part in "Cinderella" where the ugly step sisters begin cutting off parts of their own feet to fit them into the glass slipper, she abruptly stopped reading and slammed the book shut, reaching instead for something uplifting like The Little Engine that Could. 

The Grimm book mysteriously disappeared from our house that very same day.  I was, needless to say, hooked.  The next time my mother brought me to the library, I borrowed a copy of the Brothers Grimm to read for myself.  Jacob and Wilhelm were 19th-century linguists who were concerned with recording oral folk tales in order to preserve them, to some extent, but also to promote a certain image of German culture and language.  They published several editions in their lifetime, embellishing, editing, and transforming many of the stories with each new edition. They often changed evil mother characters into evil stepmothers (thus softening the image of fairy tale mothers while seriously damaging that of stepmothers), highlighted the ingenuity of German children, and focused increasingly on promoting Christian themes in what had traditionally been secular stories.  Many of the stories were not even exclusively German tales.  Often they had made their way all over Europe, sometimes as oral tales, other times as literary adaptations penned by aristocrats like Perrault and Madame D'Aulnoy, who were critical of the 17th- and early 18th-century French monarchy.  The Brothers Grimm, much like Walt Disney in the 20th century, were simply talented adapters whose versions became so widespread that they came to be seen as the "true" versions of the tale.  As Jack Zipes puts it, they "stabilized" the traditionally shifting and changing tales, making them seem permanently fixed.  As we would see in the 20th century, no folk tale is ever fixed.  Walt Disney removed much of the gruesome content from the tales, leaving just enough to keep a child interested, but adding much to lighten and soften the tales as well.  

As a kid, I had seen a few Disney films, although nothing like the onslaught children face today, and I certainly was familiar with the cute, cuddly characters of the Seven Dwarfs.  These characters as individuals, including their names (which came from a much longer list of possibilities and rejects), were invented by Disney to fill out the story.   In the Grimm version, none of them are depicted as individuals, and while good, caring friends to Snow White, they are not particularly cute or funny.    In Disney's 1937 film, the first full-length animated feature, the dwarfs' antics take up the majority of the story.  If we were to cut their scenes from the film, we would be left with the syrupy-sweet singing of Snow White, the huntsmen's softhearted failure to kill Snow White, and the amazing scene of the evil stepmother-queen creating the apple.  Disney omits her other attempts to kill Snow White--the corset laces and the comb.  He also changes the way in which Snow White is awoken from her death-like sleep. The prince does not kiss her awake in the Grimm version.  Most significantly, he changes the queen's death.  In the Brothers Grimm, Snow White and the prince invite the queen to their wedding.  When she arrives, they make her put on red hot iron shoes and then dance in them until she drops down dead.  Thus one can imagine why my very well-meaning grandmother did not want me exposed to the Brothers Grimm.

However, I have to say that as I read these tales on my own, I loved them.  I wasn't a particularly morbid kid and I didn't like violence for violence's sake, but what I did like was being able to explore scary things within the pages of a book.  I had the power to close the book if I needed to. I had the power to imagine a particular scene in my mind as I saw it.  No soundtrack or flashy animation manipulated me.  I had the very straightforward structure of a traditional tale, sometimes accompanied by illustration, as in the gorgeous edition translated by Randall Jarrell and illustrated by Nancy Erkholm Burkert, but sometimes just on its own with no pictures at all.  Nothing was made cute, nothing was watered down.  Lives were at stake; indeed, happily ever after itself was at stake.  In some, it is true, the princess simply waited for her prince to come, something that I never wanted to do myself, but I still felt for these girls.  In others, girls like Gretel relied on their ingenuity to do the task at hand, no matter how tough.  Could I have pushed the witch into the oven to save my brother?  I hoped so.  Regardless, I fell in love with fairy tales as a child and I have never been satisfied with the Disney versions of any of them.  

Today I teach young women who love the characters from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid (A Hans Christian Andersen original--not a traditional oral fairy tale), and Cinderella.  Many of them identify with these characters and see them as important factors in their own identity-building.  Childhood for them is just a few years in the past.  In fact, many of them still decorate their notebooks and laptops with stickers from the Disney Princess line, and some of them want to have Disney-themed weddings.  When people joke about the "kiddie lit" course I teach, I need only point to the multi-billion-dollar Disney fairy tale industry as just one example of the ways in which the tales we read and watch as children shape not only our individual lives, but our culture as a whole.  The Brothers Grimm were participating in the process of 19th-century nation building.  Their tale adaptations helped create Germany's international image, just as Disney's adaptations continue to shape and promote a view of America through the lens of childhood, fantasy, and make believe.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Romancing the Muse

I write every day. Right now that's easier to do than usual because I have a writing residency that gives me the gift of time, but even when life is hectic, I write very regularly.  Place doesn't matter quite as much; I write in coffee shops, airports, waiting rooms, wherever I have time to linger. The best writing, however, the writing of my wild mind, happens at home at my desk with the talismans and tokens in this photo and my cat Dill on his pillow beside me.  Students often complain to me of writer's block.  The best advice I have to give them boils down to a few simple things:
  • Turn off all your electronic devices--just like when you're on an airplane--and simply sit quietly for a bit, allowing your brain to hear its own thoughts.
  • Make a date with your muse every day and don't stand her (or him) up.  Even if it's just time for a quick snog.  Be there in the chair with the pen and paper or laptop and put the words on the page.
  • Don't be critical of your writing as you draft.  Just write.  Criticize and revise later.  When you're having a tough time keeping dates to write new stuff, make a date to work on revisions. That's when you can be tough, but even then, think of revising as a form of play. Imagine the possibilities for your poem or story.  Don't feel married to earlier drafts.  There's been no wedding--just dates.
  • This last one is the most important one: read.  Read books you love.  Read with abandon. Read more than you write.  Become a book addict.  It is the single most valuable habit a writer can cultivate.  Even if you've missed a date or two with the muse, she'll forgive you if she knows you've been reading.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Art of the Parcel, Part II

Yes, I am obsessed with packages.  Here's one of the gift tags that I've been making from vintage paper scraps, calling cards, and Victorian buttons.  I cannot seem to stop myself.