summer postcards: fine dining

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Semi-distant view from an umbrella’d table on the cool lawn outside a harbourside resto in an old house whose spicy fish wraps with extra jalapeno sauce I’m quickly becoming addicted to and where our server is Charlotte two days running, whose mother works in a lighthouse and where on another occasion and with another server we are told of Arthur the resto’s friendly ghost and the woman who lived her whole long life alone in only a few rooms of the enormous house across the street.

The blueberry bread pudding is also quite heavenly.

summer postcards: conversations with trees

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Tree growing out of beach stone, a sweet surprise, the perfect gift from the sea as I consider life between the shorelines I walk and the forest I speak to each morning.

The forest is behind my new-to-me house, new-to-me trees, we’re just getting to know each other. There is shyness on both sides.

My conversations with trees go back decades, as far back as I can remember. They are marvellous listeners, offer excellent advice on fixing paragraphs, and are intuitive when it comes to consolation.

(The language is the same no matter the variety.)

Still, friendship takes time.

I don’t tell them everything.

Not yet.

 

 

summer postcards: greetings from toad point

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Unpacking more or less done and now at that place where we are naming the new ‘hood in the event we ever have to call in a location, as in “out of mustard at Toad Point, bring reinforcements, mayo is not necessarily a substitute”, that kind of thing.

So far we have the above plus First Point, Little Point, Far Point, Around the Bend, and What’s the Point.

summer postcards: use the good bowl

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When you are a kid in yellow jeans eating popcorn out of an orange Fire King bowl in the basement watching Hitchcock’s The Birds while your mother entertains a friend in the kitchen who has just had herself fitted for dentures and has arrived (without them, as her gums are still settling) toothless and somehow generally diminished but oddly happy and you wonder: should you be eating popcorn? Is this the road to diminished toothlessness? You decide that no, that Cracker Jack may pose a danger but not buttered and salted in your Fire King bowl and so you continue eating, but with more care, not biting the kernels, for example.

And when decades later you no longer favour yellow jeans and have traded popcorn for pretzels as number one comfort food and which are best eaten directly out of the bag and when you realize the precious Fire King bowl had for… decades… been ‘preserved’ at the back of a cupboard in the house where you no longer live you give it a place of honour on the counter of your new house and let it dazzle you in the light as it collects vegetable peelings you will later dig into the garden.

this is not a review: ‘in praise of retreat’, by kirsteen macleod

I have my own preferred forms of retreat, not the least of which being an annual solitary escape at xmas to a tiny highway motel about an hour north in the country. The kind of place (I have discovered) divorced men go to lick their wounds and couples whose house burned down await insurance dollars and where you park your car in front of your room, where there’s a metal chair beside the front door if you feel like being conspicuous and a wooden one out back on your tiny private patio. It’s the latter I choose and sit wrapped in a heavy blanket under an awning on a snowy night with a glass of wine or a mug of chai; more stars than at home, the dark is darker, the silence more silent. I’m the only holiday traveller to this lonely sweet place at this time of the year where everyone leaves everyone else alone. I read and write and every night I stamp a labyrinth in the snow behind the motel as I watch the sun set. I eat wonderful meals from my cooler and in the morning I have a square of dark chocolate in bed before breakfast.

I can and I do all of this at home too (not the chocolate in bed and maybe that’s key) but on my retreat it all feels different. That too is key. Not what you do but how it feels.

I’m thinking a lot about all this currently and in the way of how things find you when you need to be found by them, I was found by Kirsteen MacLeod’s ‘In Praise of Retreat’, in which she writes of various retreat-ers, from Thoreau and Celtic hermits to E. Jean Carroll, Emily Dickinson and others whose lifestyle or parts of it demanded serious and regular isolationg from society. A gorgeous and enlightening read in which I’ve learned so much about ’emptying’, including that ‘kil’ is the Celtic word for ‘cell’ and refers to the caves of hermits up and down the Scottish coast.

Each of those place names that begin ‘kil…’ indicate they were once an inhabited space by some monkishly minded soul.

Written in my favourite style, heavily researched but conversational in tone, like lunching with someone whose every word you hang on to the point your soup gets cold and you don’t care one whit. In personal stories of yoga retreats, writing retreats, high and low end, historic and new-fangled retreat facilities in various corners of the world as well as accounts via third parties, MacLeod knows exactly how to balance research with a good anecdote. She tells of people who are drawn to retreats and the different and same things they, and we, are all looking for.

“A retreat is a place, but it is also an act of independence. A resolute effort of will is required. While it’s easier to go with the powerful tide of the mainstream, which requires no thought or cultivation, we can choose to withdraw our attention, step back. Like prayer, piano playing, tennis, yoga and meditation, retreat is a practice –the effort you put in shapes what you get out of it. The practice of retreat attunes you to the extraordinary, to the sacramental world.”

I’ve read other things on solitude that can get preachy or downright ho hum but not here. There isn’t a part of the book that feels heavy-handed, overdone or slow moving including a lovely section on Leonard Cohen that feels fresh with insight, in which she quotes him with this that I love because I love seriousness and it makes me happy to see someone taking it seriously:

“I think there’s an appetite for seriousness… [it] is voluptuous, and very few people have allowed themselves the luxury of it… Seriousness is the deepest pleasure we have. But now I see people allowing their lives to diminish, to become shallow, so they can’t enjoy the deep wells of experience.”

I’d like to paddle in this stream a bit longer, the idea of retreat and solitude, what it means, the various forms it takes, so if you have something to share on the subject, a quote, a photograph, a personal experience, a book, please do. I will be all ears and eyes and gratitude.

mss typed accurately and intelligently, obvious slips being eliminated

Ah, those were the days. When ads had private addresses and manuscripts were typed intelligently by people like Miss W.L. Pope of Handsworth who could spot an obvious slip when they met one.

I found this delightfulness in the sepia tinged pages of The Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book 1935, a hard cover, novel-sized book published by A&C Black Limited, Soho Square London, which also includes ads for writing schools, journalism programs, private tuition “ENGLISH FOR AUTHORS AND JOURNALISTS” by Mr. Hubert Wolff, a request for British songs and lyrics (please send to the British Song Society; “write now for a free prospectus”), ads for Literary Agents anxious to read, among other things, the highly sought after “travel and adventure stories from authors who live abroad”.

The actual point of the book is writing markets. And to that end there exists an A-Z listing between the thick block of front and back page advertisements.

And wherein you will find magazines looking for submissions… magazines such as The Aryan Path, founded 1930, India, (“mysticism, philosophy, comparative religions and brotherhood”),

Boys’ Friend Library, founded in 1895 and requesting 64,000 word ‘short’ stories (adventure and mystery),

and The Boys’ Magazine, founded 1887, “stories suitable for boys of better class”, hobbies, handicrafts, stamps, engineering, etc., no fiction and nothing exceeding 600 words” [are we meant to understand that boys of better class have a limited power of attention?],

The Boys’ Own Paper, founded 1879, (“fiction, articles on games, travel, adventure, and construction and other subjects of interest to boys about 12-16 years old. Both stories and articles are acceptable but must be bright and full of incident.”),

Cement and Cement Manufacture, founded 1928, (“articles in any language on the manufacture and testing of Portland cement”),

Dairymaid, The Midland Counties, founded 1928, (“brightly written, informative articles of 1,000 to 1,500 words of interest to homes in large towns in the Midlands, also articles interesting to housewives, including plain needlework, art needlework, knitting and cookery”),

Draper and Drapery Times, (“constructive articles describing better ways and oncoming productions immediately helpful to either the textile manufacturer, wholesale or retail trader”),

Home Companion, founded 1897, (“strong, dramatic serial stories appealing to artisan working girls and women, a love element, quick movement and exciting, homely people, original but human in plot and simply told, 4,000 words”),

Mabs Fashions, (“articles of interest to women”),

Mabs Weekly, (“sister magazine to Mabs Fashions, containing serial stories, dress ideas and renovations, fancy work for the home, beauty and cookery”),

Nuneaton Chronicle, (“uses short informative articles on out of the way Warwickshire archaeology. Payment is not high; the Editor is very courteous to contributors”),

Peg’s Paper, founded 1919, (“weekly fiction paper for girls, short stories 2,000 to 3,500 words, or long stories to 10,000 words, serial stories, a strong love and dramatic interest necessary”),

Post Annual, founded 1921, (“annual popular illustrated magazine dealing with Post Office questions, designed to extend public understanding of postal service, lightly written articles 2,500 to 3,000 words on Post Office matters, stories having a Post Office flavour, humorous drawings dealing with different aspects of the Post Office”),

~

The edition contains markets in Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, New Zealand, the U.S., as well as notices of literary contests, advice and warnings to composers, info on copyright, libel, agents, pen names, pseudonyms, submission of photographs, censorship, literary prizes, markets for writer/illustrators, for writers of greeting cards, various schools of film and playwriting, and numerous ads similar to the above for intelligent typing and ‘duplicating’ services (“ten pence per thousand words”) by Dorothy Allen, Miss Stuart, Nancy McFarlane, Miss E.M. Shaw, Mrs. Haggard, et al.

Interesting to see what’s changed and what hasn’t, much. Sport, engineering and adventure being encouraged for boys and domestic arts and romance being doled out for girls. Some progress in that area but maybe not enough since 1935.

I’m also sad that stories in many magazines and papers have long gone out of fashion, and that there seem to be fewer (paying) markets for writers (of cement and drapery especially) and saddest of all… the loss of post office intrigue and humour. Surely that is one rich vein waiting to be tapped.

 

this is not a review: ‘brighten the corner where you are’, by carol bruneau

 

Based on loving my (limited) experiences of limited spaces, I have this idea that I would love a tiny house. Also I’m drawn to stories about living in small spaces or trailers so it was wonderful, a few years ago, to visit the site of the one room house Maud Lewis shared with her husband Everett in rural Nova Scotia (as well as seeing the actual house which is now permanently installed at the Art Gallery of Halifax after a citizen’s group fought to save it). To imagine her painting by the window, arthritic fingers, little money, a miserly and odd/rather cold husband… going nowhere, speaking to few people, zero luxuries or conveniences, and yet… all those happy cows and cats and sleds and flowers, not to mention the house itself, the stairs, the walls, door, stove, everything in sight essentially, painted… brightly.

I’m only sorry that at the time I visited the house I hadn’t yet read Carol Bruneau’s Brighten the Corner Where You Are.

A novel narrated by Maud herself, dead and in heaven and from which vantage point, in case you’re interested, one can still covet Salsibury steak and where one is no wiser as to understanding humans. “You can’t know the heart or mind of someone else, not even from here.”

In a voice that so drew me in I had to keep reminding myself it was fiction, Bruneau spins an utterly charming (and eye-opening) imagination of what Lewis’s life might have been like in that tiny space with that crotchety, mean, and downright weird husband, and what she herself might have been like, what she thought of her strangely isolated life.

It’s also based on a sizeable amount of research judging by the bibliography.

In Bruneau’s version, Maud doesn’t complain much, she accepts the choices she’s made, the safety of marriage being something she’s grateful for after being spurned by a man with whom she had a child (a child she never knew). There is a beautiful through line involving a ring that Everett gives her, which she sees as a symbol of belonging and legitimacy. Somehow, as a couple, they work. She can’t cook but she ends up being the one to bring home the bacon, $5 at a time through her paintings, which are sold at the side of the road or by word of mouth.

Paintings now worth tens of thousands.

But it was never money that inspired her.

“When the wind blowing in through the cracks finally lulled me to sleep, I dreamt of an orange. It was fresh from the hold of a sailing ship from the south seas, round and bright as the sun. As I sucked its juice its seeds stuck in my teeth. And in the dream Ev yelled at me for not saving him some. For he expected me to share it: what’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine. That orange was the colour I would’ve painted the entire house if I could have.”

Lewis is nobody’s ninny, nor is she a Polyanna. The fact that, despite her circumstances, she chooses to paint only joy, is what makes her so interesting and becomes the angle at which Bruneau excavates: what kind of a person can live like this and still see the world as she does?

“It’s colours that keep the world turning, that keep a person going.”

It would have been easy to sentimentalize the story or play on the reader’s empathy for Lewis but Bruneau does neither. There are scenes where I wanted to scream get out, or they’re only trying to help you, or you don’t need him. But I’m glad no one was listening. Bruneau finds a beautiful balance in Maud, showing us one possibility of Why She Stays, an account that could be entirely true for all we know, certainly an example of the times when women like Maud, especially, rural and poor, physically disabled, with ‘a child out of wedlock’, were happy to have any kind of place in society. A husband and a shack by the road would do nicely.

Even so, you can’t help believe Maud Lewis had something special, a quality that helped her almost thrive.

“What these folks don’t see is that these cages made me the bird I was and the bird I am, made me sing in the way I did, the way that brought me happiness and joy and a starry life I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”

What surprises me most is how joyful the story feels, despite the not so joyful reality. In whatever way Maud managed to turn difficulty into a tolerable happiness, so has Bruneau turned a difficult story into one of ultimate brightness, capturing the essence of Maud’s pragmatic outlook. Whenever I put the book down I could hardly wait to get back to it in that way where you hope the characters haven’t got up to anything while you’ve been having your lunch. The reading felt like hanging out with Maud, hearing a sometimes painful story told with heart and sprinkled throughout with laughter, wry observation, and Maud’s maybe unintentional sense of humour.

“…Mama had a strict arrangement with Mae, who did my hair in exchange for cards. Dis-for-dat: the barber system, Mae called it.”

All that and…. it has one of the most beautiful endings I’ve read in a long time.

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Image courtesy WikiCommons.