Sunday, November 29, 2009

Follow Up: Knit-a-Square

First, I need to thank you for your responses to my last post!  After I asked you all about your favorite charities, I received a remarkable email from a woman named Sandy, the co-founder of a group called Knit-a-Square.  I've asked Sandy if it's okay for me to share a bit about the organization, so here are a few details, in her words:

"[Knit-a-Square is] an ephemeral idea which has taken hold and become a not for profit called KasCare in just over a year,  I thought to cast out the idea to the world of knitters and crocheters and ask them if they would send 8” squares to South Africa where we could make them up into blankets for some of the 1.4 million children orphaned by the twin perils of HIV/AIDS and poverty.  Actually I am in Australia, originally from Zimbabwe, my Aunt lives in South Africa and had told us she regularly bought and gave out cheap blankets at traffic lights to cold children.  

We gave up our jobs and work full time now on KAS.   Nearly 50,000 squares, 3,200 items of clothing have arrived from 3,000 members in 34 countries, mostly the States and Canada.  The program is in about 60 schools internationally and we are thinking about how to create a grass roots movement the equal of Roots and Shoots to raise awareness of this mostly hidden but terrible human tragedy, the orphans of Africa."

I thought I'd share Sandy's work here on Magpie's Fancy since I know that some of you are knitters and crocheters, too.  You can visit the site to find instructions for knitting and sending squares.

Here, too, is a poem written by Sandy's husband, Roger McDonald, and collected in his book Heart Yarns:


Why knitting? With a thousand things to choose
of graver consequence I would have thought
that fickle and departed tart, my muse,
might have inspired a more enthralling sport.

But no. So knitting it would have to be.
Two sticks, a length of string and endless time
to make some sense of purl and plain. To me
it seemed a vague and lonely pantomime.

Initially, the battle with disease
looked too unequal. How could knitters armed
with nothing more than needled yarn appease
that monster, AIDS? How could it be disarmed?

A million and a half (or thereabouts),
unparented, abandoned and alone,
hungry, homeless, hopeless, cold. My doubts
soon set about knitting themselves a home

in my gut – a useless site to stitch.
Faithless me. How could I have forgotten
the internet’s electric talking which
energises fibre, yarn and cotton?

Now suddenly your knitting is a rhyme,
a hand-sung hymn, a symphony of clicks
performed by nimble fingers (unlike mine),
a wall of hope in wool instead of bricks.

I’ve come to like your craft, when once I fought
my mother for the right to be outfitted
in any form of garment that I thought
a million miles removed from being knitted.

And like it more for what it represents:
the thin, unbreaking thread of simple love
that salves the small and poor, without pretence.
Is this the proof I search for from above?

Roger McDonald, May 2009


Friday, November 27, 2009

Giving Thanks, Spreading the Word

So, I cooked for two days straight, which I love to do, and we housed a tiny cottageful of people who camped out under loads of quilts on Wednesday night in beds and on sofas and even on the hardwood floor (kids can sleep on anything; I think their spines are made of rubber).  It was a fun few days, but I have to admit that I also love hanging out tonight in the cottage with a few candles lit, the rain and waves blustering outside, the cats sleeping, a Scottish mystery (Hamish MacBeth) in the DVD player, and just the two of us, feasting on Thanksgiving leftovers.  There's a reason I make enough stuffing to feed a brigade.  I do love my Thanksgiving leftovers--maybe even more than the meal itself.

Yeesch, it's really storming out.  The cottage is creaking; boots and slickers and umbrellas are drying by the door.  I am counting my blessings, including the roof over my head, those little plastic containers full of food in my fridge, and the coats that kept us dry as we walked home from the ferry today.  This is going to be a tough Christmas for many.  Thankfully there are many ways to help people who need a hand this winter. Here in Maine, in addition to the incredibly important coats for kids donations, some organizations, like the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging, are collecting coats for seniors.  For those knitters and crocheters who, like me, tend to craft obsessively during the winter, a great way to help out is by knitting for charity.  The Daily Knitter has a long list of folks for whom we can knit.  Other places that need donations now more than ever are local animal shelters.  Even a big bag of food or litter is a help.

If you have a favorite charity, please tell us about it in the comments section so that we can spread the word this holiday season.  

Thanks so much, my friends, for your inspiration, friendship, wit, and wisdom.  You make every day brighter over here in my corner of the blogging world.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Happy Hallowell

It was Todd's birthday this weekend, so we took a trip up to Hallowell, Maine, on the Kennebec River.  One of our favorite habits is staring at old buildings and imagining what we'd do with them if they were ours.  You know how you do, like imagining a whole other life that seems quite possible for a magic fifteen minutes or maybe even an hour.  I love those little windows of dream time, especially when shared with the coolest person I know.  Hallowell is the perfect place to indulge in this habit of ours because it is pure architectural perfection.  Of course, it doesn't hurt that it's packed with antiques shops, too!  At the Antiques Mall we bought a set of three old (I mean old) lockers from a high school in upstate New York.  They're going to hold belts and ties and scarves and whatnot back at the homestead in Massachusetts.

One of the shops downtown is guarded by ferocious beasties and graced by two Buddha heads.

I am in love with these two buildings.

We often speak of Southern Gothic literature, art, and architecture, but growing up in Maine, I always felt that there's a Northern Gothic, too, and places like Hallowell epitomize this style and feeling,

Think of the wonderful patina of Savannah, place it up north in the cold with less light and a mix of Victorian and colonial houses, and you start to get a sense of what Hallowell is like.

Someone is redoing this massive beauty high on a hill.  Think of the ghost stories you could write here!  Speaking of which, Stephen King's house just up the road a ways in Bangor is well worth a look, if you're ever in Maine.

As you head south of Hallowell on the back roads, you encounter sweet Maine villages like East Pittston, where you'll find a gorgeous compound of houses that all appear to be part of Tuttle Antiques.

Lovingly restored, the houses glow in the late-afternoon sun.

We stopped briefly in Dresden to get gas at a tiny store with pumps from the 70's that had--I'm not kidding--duct tape on them.  Not sure what it was holding together, and I probably don't want to know.  I felt like we were on an episode of the Red Green show.  But across the street was this lovely church with the sun setting behind it.

Back in Portland, we hopped on the ferry to head home.  The sky was burning pink behind us and the stars were waking up in front of us.  I asked Todd if he'd had fun.

"Yep," he said. "Best birthday ever."

"You say that every year."

"And it's always true."

P.S. If you're ever in Hallowell and you need a great meal, go to Slate's.  They make all of their own breads, croissants, and muffins; their food is tasty; and we had the sweetest waitress ever.  Their bakery is just a couple of doors down.  We had to split a pumpkin whoopie pie.  All that snooping around old buildings had made us hungry!

P.P.S.  Before I forget, the pretty leaf-skeleton lantern on my new header is by Pachadesign.  I bought two from Sammy and Glenn to have for my table during the holiday season and beyond.  They are so delicate and beautiful that I can't stop taking pictures of them, even when there's no candle inside.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Back at the Brick Store

Yesterday I posted about the objects we treasure, which got me to thinking about a recent visit to my mum's antiques shop, The Brick Store, on Front Street in Bath, Maine.

She and her partners, Barbara and Jan (who is also Mum's sister), and their other antiques dealer friends who sell in the shop find the prettiest antiques and collectibles.  I always discover something I must have when I'm there.

On my last visit, this clock was one of my favorites, but I have to tell you that I also got a big kick from these "jewel"-encrusted vintage pet collars below!

From the graceful

to the nostalgic

to the beautifully practical (ironstone's my absolute favorite)

and the stunningly elegant (Tiffany bamboo flatware in sterling), their shop is just the best.  I think some of these gorgeous pieces have sold since I was last there, but they always have new and enticing items.  I just found an amazing little objet for a sweet friend for Christmas.  I can barely stand keeping it secret until then.  In fact, I'll probably break down before then.

Here's Polly (my mum), Jan, and Barbara at the shop.  They are the friendliest and funniest gals around.  There's never a dull moment when you visit Brick Store Antiques.  On an average day, about half the town stops in for a chat.  Their shop epitomizes what's best about shopping locally at funky places with pretty windows, creaky wooden floors, and friendly shopkeepers who love their work and know their merchandise.  At Christmas I stay as far away from shopping malls as I can.  Instead, I seek stores like my mum's, where the little bell rings as you walk in the door, there's a bowl of butterscotch candy on the counter, and the owners remember you from one visit to the next.  

Friday, November 20, 2009


I often think about the objects I treasure.  Most of them are not intrinsically valuable.  No one would race into a bidding war for them at an auction, and yet I find myself drawn to them, sometimes because of the memories I associate with them, other times because of a certain beauty I find in them.

Old bottles, like the ones above that I photographed at Portland Architectural Salvage, often speak to me, especially those that have been unearthed after years in the ground and to which the dirt still clings.  Silent mysteries, they speak of another time, of places and people and uses that I love to try to imagine.  Maybe that's what I value in certain objects: they seem to tell a story.  I especially tend to love old keys, ironstone pitchers, wooden bowls, old tools and anything crafted from metal.  I also adore vintage photographs and paper goods, bits of string, lace, or other textiles, and mismatched pieces of silver, especially spoons.  Of course, those objects are most wonderful when I've received them as a gift from someone I love or when I've discovered them completely by accident, as if by fate.

What do you treasure?  What two or three things in your home do you find most beautiful or most beloved?  What about them speaks to you most?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Here are three pictures after the weekend storms; the whole island was wrapped in what my mother calls sea smoke.  It was truly beautiful in a Mists of Avalon sort of way.  Even for all that beauty, what I wish I could do is show you images of the Leonid meteor showers we watched last night from our deck.  At two a.m. there we were, wrapped in jackets and scarves and blankets, clutching mugs of chamomile tea and shouting at the sky as streaks of white, green, and gold flashed by.  I had to turn my back on Portland and on the lighthouses across the harbor so I could fix my gaze on the darkest parts of the sky, east of the island, where it's open ocean.

Yes, I wish I could show you gorgeous photos of comet particles falling from the heavens, but I have neither the camera nor the talent for capturing that particular kind of magic.  I do have words, and I am writing a poem, but that must wait, too.  I revise and revise and revise, for that is what I love best about my training as a poet: the process of revision.  Inspiration, that initial rush of writing, is the fun, sexy, and relatively easy part of writing.  I always tell my students (and they groan--oh, do they groan) that the real work, the real craft comes through re-vision, through re-seeing the poem as a whole and as its parts, each line, whether endstopped or enjambed, each metaphor, each slant rhyme.

What poetry students eventually find, the serious ones at least, is a kind of joy in that work as the poem reveals itself anew with each revision.  The process becomes one of discovery and revelation.  Writing well is like reading well, and I think that both are like living well, although it is easier, of course, for me to write and read well than to live well.  I am working at it.  What does Samuel Beckett say?  "Try.  Fail.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail better."  What I wish for tonight is a willingness and an ability to try again.  I wish to see the world around me clearly--people, their fears and joys, and to accept them for who they are.  I also wish to be a little braver.  My whole life feels on the brink of changes, some good, many hard, but nearly all tinged with risk, so I need to pack some courage in my rucksack.  I think of the Leonids; they blaze and burn out, rushing off into their own oblivion no matter what I do down here on earth, a fact which I find oddly comforting.  Archibald MacLeish wrote in "Ars Poetica" that "a poem must not mean but be."  I often think the same of life.

Here is a moment.  We are alive.  We are.    

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Simple Things

Today the gorgeous Christina is once again hosting a celebration of the simple things.

I can never resist playing along.
Here are a few of the simple things in life
that make my heart sing:

just a moment or two petal-pink sunrise before a grey stormy day

an island rose still thriving in November (in Maine!)

a coconut cupcake at El Rayo Taqueria in Portland--
two forks please, one for you and one for me

the view from my window on that grey stormy day

milkweed seeds at the moment they begin to fly away

a neighbor's blue boat

two friends I spotted sitting in front of me
(well, one was sitting) on the ferry

I am grateful for visits from people I love, a cup of Earl Grey tea before the day's work begins, recipes (new ones and old favorites alike), seltzer water on my tongue, the scent of fallen leaves after the rain, long walks, the roof over my head, the stars above that roof, lighthouses, coffeehouses, the curiosity of children, paintbrushes and new paints, my camera, my family, and my friends, including my dear blogging friends, who inspire me every day.  Most especially, I am grateful for my best friend, who knows just what I love to read, how I take my tea, and where to find the best sea glass at low tide.  He is my treasure--maybe not so simple, but a gift, indeed.  How lucky am I?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thanks and a Bit of Cheer

I was deeply moved by your responses to my last post, especially those in which people told stories about their own parents, whether passed away or still living.  It was amazing to hear your stories and memories, each one so particular in its details and yet so universal in the emotions it captured.  James Joyce calls that phenomenon the particular universal--those details that make each story unique and yet somehow make it touch the minds and hearts of nearly all those who read that story.  You all touched my mind and my heart (and many others', too, I suspect), and I thank you.

Today I thought I'd haul myself up out of melancholy and show you a few photos of the amazing terrarium my friend Marlowe gave me last April.  I've mentioned it more than once before, so I decided maybe it was time for a progress report.

These first two shots are from the early days, when it was a sweet jar housing two respectable plants and some marvelous little figures Marlowe had tucked into it: a bisque girl preparing to toss a ball, a park bench, and a shiny red bicycle.

Well, through months of benign neglect--a sprinkling of water every now and then--the pretty little plants have grown into a monstrous jungle that spills over the top and down the sides of the jar.  I know that  I should  transplant them, but I really kind of love this jungle as it is.  

Dozens of buds bloomed on the African violet this week, most of them happily opening deep under the canopy of the jungle, hidden away from all but the most intrepid of explorers who are willing to part the vines and leaves in search of the blossoms.

You may be wondering about the little figures.  I took the girl out a few months back.  She is at home back in our loft in Massachusetts.  The bicycle and bench are still inside the terrarium, completely hidden by the growth of the plants.  I love that they are there.  xo

Monday, November 9, 2009

November Days

November has always made me uneasy.  As someone who tends toward the melancholic, I am lured even deeper into my moods when November's salt marshes bleach to shades of bone and its sky to shades of grey.  Don't get me wrong, I rather enjoy this feeling of teetering on the edge of winter's ice and sleet.  Besides, November is the month of counting blessings, of gathering our strength and supplies for the coming months of dark and cold.  It is the month I remember my father the most, gone now for a quarter of a century, but still present in the ocean's spray and the shiver of fallen leaves.  Even as I type this, I am almost back there, riding beside him in his tomato-soup red GMC down the old beach roads on a drizzly day.  The heater steams my wool socks.  Between us on the seat rest a jumble of receipts, a Stanley tape measure, and, as always, a pack of Wrigley's.  He is singing Roger Miller, "Trailers for sale or rent, rooms to let--fifty cents . . ." and I settle farther down into the seat, lean my head against the fogged window, let my thoughts drift.  Outside, houses and trees rush past, but we are in no hurry, my father and me.

Saturday, November 7, 2009



I'm dreaming this week of the color I loved most as a girl: lollipops, bell-bottoms, raincoats and lipgloss--all in shades of plum.  Plum felt like velvet, smelled like colored pencils, and shone like my bike with the banana seat and handle-bar streamers.  A plum-colored notebook waiting with blank pages was the antidote to heartbreak, boredom, and rainy Sundays.  Plum was birthday streamers, long phone calls, and staying up late to watch Saturday Night Live when my big brother was left in charge.  It was grape juice, sparkle nail polish, and jelly on toast.  It was a kiss from George behind the corner store.  Plum was slick as a satin jacket or a song by Queen at the skating rink; it was TLA, lying awake in the dark, the thing I wanted most yet least expected.  Plum was a last shimmer on the lake at sunset.  It was a secret, a promise, a wish.  It was what I knew and it was what I always kept.  

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Party's Over

I mentioned in my last post that we went to Jordan's Farm in Cape Elizabeth on Wednesday.  They really do have glorious produce, and I can't resist their displays, like the old bathtub above full of pie pumpkins.

But what charmed the same part of me that's drawn to the most forlorn, Charlie Brown-lookalike tree on the lot every December were the jack-o-lanterns awaiting their demise after the farm's Halloween revelries.  

Charred, withered, and one short step from the compost heap, these guys had character.

Especially this one below, who reminded me of myself most mornings of late.

What?  You wanna piece of me?