Reading and Crafts in Winter’s Dark

I haven’t written since early January because I’ve been struggling with the gloom and anxiety resulting from last fall’s election. I gave myself some space over the inaugural weekend, figuring I’d write the next weekend. But that came after a week of ill-advised executive orders that culminated in one resulting in the deportation of people with permanent residency and others who had waited years and endured much to come here.

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I started sewing again. This is the Lonely Dollop. Yes, it’s a pile of poo and reflects my mood for the past few weeks.

As a result, it has seemed somehow inappropriate to write about crafts, baking and gardening in the face of ominous attacks on the Constitution, civil rights, and democracy. As someone trained as a historian, I know the dangers of ignoring incursions into checks and balances. Still, while remaining alert citizens, we need some joy in daily life.

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A colleague said if she were an animal, she would be a turtle, so I made her this little creature, getting away from the poo theme.

I have been sewing and reading and, yes, have ordered some seeds for the garden. I’m not ready to look forward to the gardening season yet, but I’ve been out there, trimming roses and getting lettuces out of the cold frame.

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First I had ideas about turtles, then fish came into the mix.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading, some of it escapist and some of it not. I read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. I also read Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple. Currently, I’m reading Michael Chabon’s Moonglow.

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Then more turtles and more fish. Pauline, do you recognize that orange tulle?

Hochschild is a sociologist you may know from her book a few year’s ago about parents, called The Second Shift. She was interested in the working class voters who always seem to vote against their self interest by voting conservative. She went to Louisiana and lived there for five years, getting to know people and listening.

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I added starfish (Johanna, do you recognize the starfish?) and a scallop shell and sand dollars.

It’s a book whose stories are hard to read: a family whose bayou has been poisoned and most of whose members have died of cancer; a man who worked for a company that dumped chemicals into the bayou, who was fired when he needed to go on disability, and who helped the local Tea Party candidate plant signs along the road; people who can’t fish their local waters or eat what they catch. They are hard-working people who want to make it on their own. Hochschild’s book makes three points. We all need to break through the empathy wall when talking to people whose opinions we disagree with or don’t understand. The people she was writing about have been working a long time and standing in line for the American dream. They feel as though someone keeps getting put in ahead of them. The third thing is emotional. They feel judged and misunderstood by liberals and welcomed into community by conservatives. It’s a book well worth reading for anyone who wants to understand the resurgence of political conservatism, and its lessons may apply in more than the US.

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I had to pull out a sand dollar from a Nova Scotia vacation to see what the pattern on the shell was.

I didn’t read Go Set a Watchman when it came out because there was such hullabaloo surrounding it. There were all sorts of reviews speculating whether it was the book Lee wanted to write rather than To Kill a Mockingbird. And then there was the general hysteria about Atticus Finch being a racist rather than the saintly lawyer of Mockingbird.

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I’m feeling pretty competent with the turtles at this point.

Watchman is a good book in its own right. It is a story about not being able to go home again. Jean Louise Finch (Scout) has been living in New York City for a number of years, coming home to the south periodically to find the social expectations stifling and that she has very little in common with her contemporaries.

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This is the entire mobile, with a little sparkle from Pauline’s dangler as a backdrop. It’s going to go to a couple little boys, Kieran and Ari, for their bedroom at their grandmother’s house.

On the particular visit in the book, she runs smack into the wall that many young people do at some point: how in the world did I grow up here, absorbing all the ideals of my life and come to such diametrically opposed ideas to those of the people I love? It’s a shock. It’s a shock for Jean Louise, much less any reader who can’t hold a complex view of Atticus. It also has one of the clearest, briefest explanations of the southern viewpoint on civil rights I’ve read anywhere–which, even though written in the 1950’s still has currency today (now remember the Hochschild book). It’s well-written and it’s a tight story of the sort that leaves you with things to think about.

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It’s out in paper now!

Today Will be Different, I’m not going to review at length. Semple writes about characters with some trauma in their background, but this one didn’t convince me and I didn’t much like her. It was disappointing because I liked her previous novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? so much. It may be that someone else has read the new book and related better to it. If so, please write a review!  And thanks to those of you who checked in on me in my dry spell.  It’s really nice to be part of such a community.

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I think this sea turtle pattern will offer quite a few possibilities…

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Finishing Up the Old

There’s something nice about starting anew with a new year. I have always enjoyed New Year’s Eve, whether having people in to celebrate, going out, or spending a quiet, reflective evening. This year I spent a decidedly quiet evening.

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Here it is: the infamous, unfinished table runner…

On my trip out to Illinois before Christmas, a passenger directly behind me coughed through the whole flight, sometimes in paroxysms. Needless to say, by my return trip, I knew I was coming down with something…similar.

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I loved making little designs for the center circles. They face different ways so that something is upright no matter where you sit!

While not down for the count, I did not want to spread the evil virus, so I stayed home both New Year’s Eve and Day and worked on my table runner! Those of you who have followed my blog for a while may remember my winter of crafting various things in felt. The table runner was one of those.

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Woo hoo! Signed, sealed, delivered.

It was based on an old sewing craft that resulted in “penny” or coin rugs, place mats, chair covers and other things. I liked the examples I saw and the fact they used blanket stitch to be decorative, so I set about cutting and sewing the circles, which was fun, and designing some trees and flowers and sewing those into the circles as well.

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The trouble came when I had pinned the circles onto their backing and they could no longer be manipulated during the course of sewing. I started life left handed, and being flexible, became ambidextrous. I bat, golf, and wield a tennis racket in my right hand. I also use right handed scissors. I write, eat and prefer to pick up glasses with my left hand, which is more dextrous than my right. Sometimes I don’t know which hand to use until the first one I try doesn’t work. This happens when I open jars. With which hand? Who knows? I’d have to try to open a jar.

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When I first learned the blanket stitch, I had to translate the instructions, which are always right handed. I didn’t realize this until I was sewing in entirely the wrong direction for my left hand. Once reversed, things went swimmingly. But not being able to turn the circle seemed tough, so eventually, I put the project away unfinished.

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It is self-backed and stitched up at either end.

Late last year, I brought it out and put it on the table, thinking seeing the project might spur me to finish it. So, sitting down with a wicked cold (three boxes of tissues in two days) I pondered the circles. The first couple I sewed while they were flat on the table top, turning the fabric when things got difficult. Then, without thinking (as is often the case with my crazy handedness) I switched hands from left to right. It worked like a dream.

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I started at twelve o’clock with the left hand and switched to the right just about where the needle is in the photo.

So it’s nice to report that the table runner is finished, all but for some work with the backing. I like the way it looks on my table and am glad that the decks are now cleared for some new projects this year.  Of course, the seed catalogues have started coming, but I’ll look at those next month…

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Top view. It’s already collected a bit of candle wax…

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The Constant Reader, Remodel or Not

I have weather whiplash. We had ice Saturday morning. Today it was in the 50’s. Now the wind is blowing a front through, and undoubtedly the temperature will drop again!

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Yesterday morning, I could have used a version of this in the ice.

Some of you may know that I am in the midst of kitchen remodel. Yesterday, I had an appointment with an appliance distributor to pick out appliances. And I did. In an hour and a quarter, I got a range, a refrigerator, a microwave that doubles as a convection oven (who knew?) and a disposal. I stayed on the budget in my head, but went a bit over the one I had written on paper. Now I need to pick out flooring and a kitchen faucet. That doesn’t seem too onerous.

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Now this is the perfect position…bring on the books!

In the past few months, I have been doing a lot of comfort reading, defined in this case as all the Tommy and Tuppence mysteries by Agatha Christie. I don’t think I ever read them. They are very cozy, with evil people vanquished. Finally I felt up to breaking out of comfort reading and bought a copy of Cathleen Schine’s They May Not Mean To, but They Do. Those of you familiar with Philip Larkin will know that particular line. I have only read one other book of Schine’s and I liked it a great deal. It was called Finn and Lady and told the story of a young boy orphaned and taken into the care of his sophisticated (he thinks at the time) older step sister. It’s worth a read, and so is They May Not Mean To, but They Do.

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I am not a fan of coming of age novels. Something about them irritates me. They May Not Mean To, but They Do is a coming of old age novel. It is not a fast read. The plot moves at a stately pace, so that you get to know all the characters well and you also get a little humor in the grim, familiar situation. This book is about all the ways children of elderly parents get it right and badly wrong; about the worry, the anxiety, and the misunderstandings; and about the way a person still in charge of her life can move on in spite of all the well-meant interference. It is a crisp, incisive novel full of empathy and wit.

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After that, I turned to the blogosphere’s own Laurie Graves of Notes from the Hinterland. She has written Maya and the Book of Everything and it’s a wild ride. This one does not move at a stately pace, but whirls you along through time (and, dare I say, space) with magic books of knowledge. This is a young adult novel and it takes on issues of knowledge, truth, facts, and the responsibility to use them wisely for the good of the world. There is a hint that it may be the first in a series. I’m beginning to understand all those adults who were reading the Harry Potter books. Write on, Laurie!

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Picked green before the last frost and ripened. Slightly better than store bought…

Other than reading, I have tried to use some of the food I had from the garden. I made pumpkin and white bean soup yesterday, and today, I roasted the last of my tomatoes.  At the end of the season, I had so many green tomatoes. Yeah, you can fry them once or twice, make chutney or pickles with them, but I wasn’t keen on any of that, so I set them in a cool place and waited for them to ripen. I had to monitor them, as some were determined to rot first. In the end I had a few to roast with some oregano, olive oil and pesto. They’ll be nice accents in winter rice dishes and stews.

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Not much juice in them, but roasted they have some good flavor.

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Decorating, Baking, and Gardening

This weekend, I got my little potted tree out. Last weekend, I dug out the decorations I was willing to deal with this year, so things were ready for it.

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I’ve had this for a number of years now. I almost didn’t buy it because I was sure it would die. Then I touched it and realized it was rubber or something…

I hung some garland on a couple windows and some decorative bulbs as well.

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It’s nice to have a festive window.

It didn’t take long to decorate the little tree. I greatly enjoy it during Advent and Christmas.

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Lots of old ornaments, lots of memories.

I also did some baking. Kerry had asked for the recipe for the banana berry walnut cake and I needed to make it more than once to have the proportions in my head. The one I mentioned in the last blog is still steeping in rum. I have no idea what it will taste like. The breads I made today are quite tasty, not as sweet as one might expect, as I tend to make them for breakfast.

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Here it is, all mixed up.

So here is what you will need to make them, liquid ingredients first: two bananas, mashed; 1/2 cup oil (I used walnut); two beaten eggs; 1/2 cup buttermilk; 1/2 cup brown sugar (could also use cane syrup or molasses); 1/2 cup dried berries of your choice; 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (pecans would make this sweeter); vanilla to taste (I am a bit of a demon about vanilla, so I will leave to your discretion); stir together until well mixed. To the liquid add 1 1/4 cups cake flour and 3/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour with a tablespoon of baking powder mixed in. Beat until just mixed. Put in greased tins for baking.

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I like to use the small tins as I can keep the breads fresher. If you are feeding a bigger group, just put it all on one tin.

Last week I made a large loaf; this week I made three small ones. The large loaf takes about 45 minutes at 350 degrees. The small loaves all in the oven at once take about 35 minutes.

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The loaves, cooling on racks. If you want to add rum, it soaks in nicely. For a large loaf start with half a cup, drizzling it over the loaf. Wrap it to store in a cool place to absorb…

I also made it out to my neglected garden, where I found parsley flourishing in the cold frame, along with some lettuces that aren’t quite there yet.

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So glad I hadn’t bought parsley this weekend!

I also brought back a considerable quantity of arugula, which looked wildly happy about the cold weather. If you ask me, this is the time of year for an arugula, goat cheese and walnut salad, perhaps with some pumpkin and white bean soup. I baked the pumpkin today too, and brought some sage leaves back from the garden. Soup to come…

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I had a few leaves while standing in the garden…

And to make the season a bit more discombobulating, there were roses…

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Fabulous.

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Coming Up for Air

After weeks of intermittent internet, I finally have service again!! Yay! It must be a gift to myself. For more than a year, my internet was slow, but I could do what I needed to do, so I didn’t think much about it. Then it got downright balky. Turns out my internet provider had moved the transponder (that might not be the right word) out of range for me. I wondered why they hadn’t mentioned this while continuing to charge me for internet…

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Brisker weather has me thinking about fires…I did promise more photos from my workshop and they are here…

I canceled service with them and alternately used my iPad as a hot spot and rented wifi from a company that I was considering buying permanent access from. Whew. Good thing I tried them out. Their transponder only worked from late morning to, oh, say 10:30 at night. Not good. And it wasn’t very secure and I started to get phishing emails that were quite good, and might have fooled someone less alert to their wiles.

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Those phish baiters must think we’re mushrooms. But aren’t these lovely?

Today, I worked from home and waited for the technician to come who would convert me to fiber optic phone and internet. Poor guy was here for three hours running wires and testing, but when he left, I had blazing internet!! Hurray!

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Fire dogs. Number 2 size…

So I will try to start posting regularly again. I have yet to put the garden to bed; other things have intervened, so if I can get to that, I’ll let you know what’s up there.

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Dawn at the outdoor fireplace…

I did some massive baking and granola making on Sunday. Olive oil pumpkin bread and a banana-berry-walnut cake that is now soaking in rum. That latter is going to the office Christmas party. I hope it’s good.

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I needed a different setting for this photo, but still like it. These are the rings that once held a barrel together…Lovely light, just a bit too much of it!

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Happy Thanksgiving

It is good as we gather today to take a moment to reflect upon our wealth, counted in many  ways.  May you have blessing on blessing and recognize each one.

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Learning to Use My Camera

I said last time that I’d let you know how the digital photography workshop went. It was at Shrinemont, which is in Orkney Springs Virginia. Regula Franz has been running these workshops, spring and fall, for 8 years. She teaches in Richmond and travels extensively.

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This picture symbolizes the past week for me. Murk, decay, a little clarity, and a few bright spots…

I would never have known about the workshop if I hadn’t been thinking I could use a retreat, and Shrinemont is the retreat center for the Episcopal Church in Virginia. Originally, it was a spa where people went to take the spring waters. Virginia House, which may be the largest wooden structure in Virginia, was built in the early 1800’s. Other buildings on the grounds date to before the Civil War. It was a place where people built “cottages” they could escape to in the hot summers.

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Virginia House. It has one of the dining halls, as well as reception, a library, gift shop, ball room, and guest rooms.

It has miles of hiking trails, a pond, canoes, and family style meals. During our stay, there were a number of churches on retreat and a number of groups like ours. You are assigned a cottage and a dining hall and in your dining hall, there are little signs on the tables for groups to gather. It’s hearty country food and they set platters of it on the tables. When a group empties them, they bring more.

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Tucker Hall, where my group dined, has folks streaming in for a meal. They ring a bell to call people in.

The Episcopal Church has had a long relationship with the hotel and spa, and they bought it in the 1970’s. At that point, they modernized and remodeled Virginia House and have been updating the cottages as well. Basically, the road into Orkney Springs ends in a loop on the hotel grounds, which are backed up to a mountain. Hike over the mountain and you’re in West Virginia. The hotel has slowly been buying up private houses that remain in the grounds as they become available and turning them into guest accommodations.

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This tempting hammock was right outside my cottage.

If you read the blog regularly, you’ll remember I bought a new camera in the spring. Unlike my fantasies, it was not like an SLR film camera and it had so many settings that I had neither the time nor the patience to figure it out. So, in search of a retreat, I saw Regi’s workshop and made a decision to go. It was a very good decision.

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This may be my favorite shot of the weekend, an old storage shed.

Regi was familiar with almost all of the cameras her pupils brought to class and could tell us how to set them, gave us checklists and lectures on the settings we were unfamiliar with, and then sent us out into the Shrinemont grounds to use our newfound knowledge.

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The light was lovely to play with, here the paths of a labyrinth.

I can’t tell you how great it is to learn something and put it right into practice. And Shrinemont is a photographic treasure trove. There are mountains, woods, old buildings, flowers, and water to look at.

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Here, I had to try more than once to catch the light on the leaves and grass…

Once I got all the settings right on the camera, I fell back into a rhythm of fixing the aperture and speed, adjusting to the light, and generally reveling in capturing something I saw. We came back from our ventures out and loaded our photographs onto our laptops so we could share them. Ultimately, we selected our best and donated them to Shrinemont for use in brochures and advertising. It was time well spent, and I feel as though I can start using that new camera now…I will try to publish some more of the photos in the coming weeks.

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Looking up the mountain at the turning trees.

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One of two or three locked doors at Shrinemont: it leads to the bell tower, and no doubt keeps venturesome children from ringing the bell at all hours.

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