Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Russian Icons -- Windows to Eternity

On our recent vacation on the East Coast, my husband and I stopped in Clinton, Mass. to visit the recently built Museum of Russian Icons (http://www.museumofrussianicons.org), established by one Gordon Lankton in 2006 in a 150-year-old former mill in the picturesque town. It was truly inspiring (I've been thinking for some years now of writing an historical novel with icons as the main subject...) and the museum is beautifully arranged. Our docent was a young Russian woman who was very well informed and engaging.  The icon to the left is called "The Image Not Made by Hands" and is the Russian Orthodox "version" of the legend of Veronica's Veil, and also akin to the Shroud of Turin. The story relates that a Persian King had leprosy and hearing tales of the miracles wrought by Jesus, sent an icon artist to him to paint his icon and bring it back to the king so he could pray before it and be healed. Instead of 'posing' for the icon painter, Jesus took a cloth, dipped it in water, and pressed it to his face, leaving the imprint as it shows on the icon. When the king saw it, he was healed (of course). 

Here are some other icons we took photos of -- be sure to visit the website to see more!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Emily Dickinson -- Poetry in Small Things and Large

I've never paid much attention to Emily Dickinson until recently, when I read a fascinating historical novel based on her odd, eccentric and remarkable life. (The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn). And then, just three days ago as my husband and I were visiting friends along the East Coast, we found ourselves within 10 miles of Amherst, Massachusetts, where Emily lived and died. At right is the only known image of her, a daguerrotype taken when she was about 16 -- neither she nor any of her family thought it did her justice, and it was hidden away in a drawer, and she never had another photograph taken.

The day we visited her home was a mildly rainy morning, quiet, soft and gray. We walked around the grounds, a large property which included her brother's house, The Evergreens, also a museum. We were the only two in line for a  late morning tour, and our docent, an older man with a white beard and a cheerful manner, recited Emily's poems as we wandered from room to room. Upstairs in her bedroom where she wrote and slept and died, he movingly spoke aloud a poem she wrote about her many sleepless nights:

Will there really be a "Morning"?
Is there such a thing as "Day"?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?

Has it feet like Water lilies?
Has it feathers like a Bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I have never heard?

Oh some Scholar! Oh some Sailor!
Oh some Wise Men from the skies!
Please to tell a little Pilgrim
Where the place called "Morning" lies!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Old Western Cemetery, Bird Song and Silence

On a driving trip back to San Francisco from visiting family in Portland, Oregon, my husband and I stopped at Jacksonville, Oregon, about six miles west of the farm town of Medford. The Main Street is about four blocks long, with buildings dating from the 1850s. It was hot the day we were there -- 85 degrees or so -- that is, hot for San Franciscans used to the Summer Fog, but just delightful for the local folk used to temperatures in the low 100's during the summer. One of the main attractions of Jacksonville is the cemetery, which we walked up a winding road to get to at the top of a ragged hill with lovely views of the larger hills and valleys all around. Huge old orange-barked manzanitas shaded the peaceful resting places of pioneers to Oregon. The cemetery was divided into various sections:  City, Masonic, Jewish -- and the time-honored Potter's Field, where the poor and the unknown were buried, usually without any markers. It was a peaceful place, as you can see in the video -- if you listen carefully, you can hear the birds trilling in the late afternoon sun.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Amos Lee and that old Violin

I have fallen in love with a "new" singer--new to me at least--Amos Lee. His latest CD, "Mission Bell" has an incredibly beautiful, heartfelt song called "Violin" that just breaks my heart when I hear it. He has other CDs which I'll start tracking down, but this one I have already purchased and have been playing for days. There's really something fun about finding a "new" creative thing (for lack of a better word at the moment) -- musician, author, singer, artist -- and of course, he or she could have been around for a long time, just happens to be your new discovery. Finding that voice or painting or style that speaks to you, resonates with you and your life--it's such a gracious gift, and one I hope I never get used to or take for granted.

I'm about to head down to San Diego for a long weekend at the Historical Novel Society conference, and I'm really looking forward to reveling in meeting new people, reading new books, finding new authors, different styles, alternative perspectives--I'm mentally preparing to keep my ears and eyes and spirit wide open to receive all the impressions I can. It's the kind of thing that feeds one's own creativity with hope and facts and friendship. I'll be back with my impressions!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Playing within the Play's The Thing

I went to a reading of a play the other night, a play that was being considered for production, so this was a kind of try-out with a feedback session between the audience and the director (Brian Scott), the playwright (William Bivins), and some of the actors. The SF Playhouse at 533 Sutter Street was the venue, and REMAKING PUSSYCAT was the title. Not only was it great fun--witty, laugh-out-loud funny, well-paced and intelligent--it was a great place to get in a couple of sketches (yes, this is the second week of my drawing class at the Free University of San Francisco). Only one was good enough to show here, basically some of the people who were sitting in front of me, and I had loads of fun being creative about it, post-event, using the simple little Paint program on my computer.

I wanted to add color, just a little, to see how it would change the sketch. I had done it the previous week, with my "Vera" portrait, only there I added the color myself, with felt-tip pens. I wanted to preserve the original sketch (above), so I scanned it in, and made a copy, and played with the copy. Here's the first color version:

And then I noticed a little tab on the Paint program that said "Inverse Color" and thought, wonder what that does?  Here's what it does: 

And the best thing is, I didn't bring my sketchbook or even a little pocket notebook with me to the theatre--the only piece of paper I had on me was a 4x6-inch receipt from the Post Office--so I used that! Sketched in black ink on the back of a receipt--and it worked!  I like this class, I feel freer already.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Illumination of the Ordinary

I have been struggling with writer's block, and have been seeking other ways to stir up, use, extend and try to satisfy my creative self's incessant demands (it's been giving me nightmares). I created and finished the third of four planned stained glass windows (the Four Seasons, I just did Summer). I have put renewed energy into my piano lessons, practicing every day and learning new pieces (Eric Satie's Gnossiennes). And finally, I started a drawing class last night at the Free University of San Francisco -- "Pocket Pad Art" taught by David Newman (we call him just "newman"). The idea is to sketch as you sit on the bus, walk down the street, linger at a cafe, lounge on the sofa with the TV on...anywhere, everywhere, no matter what the subject. 

We did some sketching of the room we were in last night, off a downtown, South of Market alley called Tehama St. (my sketch here was done the next day), where homeless people set up their tents and cardboard boxes, and the cold western wind from off the ocean blows hard against your forehead. There wasn't much in the room, but anything is available for sketching. I liked the one I did of a young woman sitting across from me--it started out as a contour drawing, then I elaborated later and filled it in with colored pens. It struck me that the "V" of her sweater made the picture look like an illuminated manuscript letter at the beginning of a sentence, so I decided to call her "Vera" (not the real woman's name) and begin a short story with her name:

VERA chose the purple eyeshadow that night exactly because it clashed with the green streaks in her hair, and also because green and purple were Easter colors, and even though she was Jewish, she didn't think that was any reason not to like Easter.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings by Barry Gifford - A Review

Barry Gifford has strung together a set of vignettes and moments-in-time about Roy, a kid who lives in Chicago, at various points in Roy’s life – from when he’s about nine to when he’s nineteen, and everything in between. But it’s not chronological; Gifford has thrown the stories up in the air and the reader gets them as they’ve landed, presenting an interesting space-time discontinuum that provides perspective and dissonance, epiphany and revelation. Roy navigates the icy, windy backstreets of Chicago in the 1950’s like a modern-day Huck on the river. It’s almost always bleak winter, or end of autumn, or just before the spring—the weather is a palpable presence, and it’s not particularly friendly.

I think that thoughtful, introspective teenagers would find this book speaks to them; I know as an introspective adult, it really spoke to me. Of course, being from Chicago myself made it an extra special treat, but that’s not a requirement. Gifford’s Roy sees the world with calm and wondering eyes, very nearly innocent, which of course changes as he grows, but he’s very likeable and interesting. He has a weary mother and a pragmatic, wise grandfather, and lots of goofy friends who drag him into questionable activities. But we see Chicago as Roy sees it, with all its harsh city life, public school days angst, and a young man’s dreams, through a filter of curiosity and compassion that helps us read life itself more thoughtfully. 

This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review, February 2011.

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings
Barry Gifford, Seven Stories Press (New York) 2010, 201 pp., pb, YA/Adult
ISBN: 978-1-58322-922-4

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Green Man and Telling the Bees

It's a fine spring day in San Francisco and we're 15 days away from the Vernal Equinox. Images of the Green Man I have gathered from the internet appear and fade away on my computer screen (like these here) and haunt me with ideas. My next novel is theoretically woven around the tales and mythology of the Green Man although I can't quite get the story in my head as yet. An excellent video of Norwich Cathedral's famous Green Men "grotesques" (like the images on this page) can be seen here on you tube accompanied by some compelling music. 

And speaking of music, I have just become acquainted with a wonderfully dark and folksy band called Telling the Bees -- I haven't seen or heard anything like it since 1968 with its folk festivals and free spirits dressed like knights and ladies with real flowers in their hair -- I was one of them, and still am at heart. Their music has lifted my spirits and makes me yearn to go to England. Their song "Wood", which you can hear at the link, says so much about being connected and grateful to the natural world which gives us so much! I want to walk around Stonehenge and Avebury and Glastonbury Abbey's ruins. I want to hear fiddle music and the drone of bagpipes and sackbuts. I want to feel the presence of ancient spirits in the forest and streams. Can one be nostalgic for a time and place one has never lived in? Maybe in another life... Anyway, I guess I'm afflicted with spring fever in a seriously romantic way, so maybe I can take another look at that new novel and see if I can write today!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Franciscan Church Bells Ring for the Hungry & Homeless

This morning I brought three coffeecakes and two jugs of orange juice to St. Boniface Church in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, joining a dozen other volunteers from my parish of St. Ignatius (on the USF campus) to serve breakfast to about 30 homeless men and women. There were hot coffee and chocolate, three kinds of juice, hot baked egg-and-sausage casserole, a spiral-slice ham, muffins, croissants, tangerines and little apples--and every bite  was gone within an hour. We set up the breakfast room quickly, a basement meeting room with linoleum floors, low ceilings and battered tables and chairs, and at precisely 7:00 am, the bells of St. Boniface, a Franciscan-run parish, rang out solemnly through the pouring, cold rain--and our guests came across the courtyard from the church to the breakfast room.

(The photos show St. Boniface (on the left) after the 1906 earthquake and fire, and then restored a few years later. It was established in 1860 as a German-Catholic parish run by the Franciscan friars and priests.)

It was my first time volunteering, so I observed at first what went on. Some volunteers served up the food in the line, others brought hot coffee or chocolate to wet, shivering men as they made their way to a chair to sit down and rest before getting breakfast. Others grabbed a muffin or a cup of coffee and sat down at the tables to join the guests and serve as an attentive, sympathetic ear to their stories of life on the streets. One old man, Jack, was shivering so violently as he came in that he could hardly walk, and the woman in charge quickly ran off to get a blanket, then wrapped it around his shoulders and helped him to a seat. I asked Jack if I could get him some breakfast, he nodded, and I came back shortly with a plate heaped with hot eggs, sausages, coffeecake and ham, then sat down across from him and next to another man named Ron. At first I couldn't understand anything Jack said but as he warmed up (literally), his speech became clearer. He was a Vietnam vet; he wouldn't stay in shelters because they were "too dangerous" (Ron backed this up with an emphatic echo "too DANGERous"), but thought he might go up to the VA hospital later in the day where they might take him in for the weekend. He'd spent the night outside--the last five nights actually--as had Ron. This has been one of the coldest weeks we've had here for a while, and there is the expectation of snow and very low temperatures tonight and over the weekend.

But it wasn't all grimness and desperation--these men are surprisingly good-humored, resilient and courageous. Ron and I got to talking about the "best music" ever, which we agreed was the late 60's, early '70s (of course). Jack told me he was 61 this year and was amazed when I told him I was the same age. "You look pretty good for 61" he said, and almost winked at me. "If I'd known you when I was young, I would have married you!"

The room was clearing out, and Jack had pretty much stopped shivering. All the breakfast guests are invited by the Franciscans to sleep in the church on the pews during the day, Mondays through Fridays (when the shelters are all closed), so that's where Jack and Ron and all the others were headed. I asked Jack if he was going to try to get to the VA today (it's clear across town, out near the ocean on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge) and how he would get there; he said he would probably have the church call an ambulance to take him--he'd done it before. I wished him well, and said "God bless you." 

Then I got in my car and drove home through the wind and the rain, wishing there was more I could do to help. I know, at least, I'll go back to St. Boniface next month. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sioux City, John Denver...and The Heiress of Washington Square

Okay, so here I am in Sioux City, Iowa, where today it actually reached a high of 35 degrees (!) but this morning it was only 4 degrees above zero. Lots of snow on the ground, of course, nothing like Chicago or the upper East Coast, thanks be, otherwise I wouldn't have arrived from San Francisco yesterday via Minneapolis. My best friend moved here a year ago after we both were laid off our jobs in San Francisco, and this is where she was able to find work -- at an ice cream company! (Wells Blue Bunny in La Mars, Iowa, who knew.) So I'm visiting while her husband is taking a break from the midwest for a superbowl weekend in Reno--and she and I drove to Omaha today. 

This is where the John Denver part comes in. YES, we both like listening to John Denver, although we agreed that 30 years ago we would NEVER have admitted we liked the dweeby little grinning folk/country singer--SO sentimental! SO goofy! But lately I have realized that my singing voice has constricted in its already small range to one octave - middle C - and that's what dear old John sings in too! So I can sing along with him perfectly! And I have to say that "Rocky Mountain High" does bring back some fond memories. Cynthia had a CD of his greatest hits in her car, which we proceeded to play all the way back from Omaha to Sioux City (about 95 miles--and the CD lasted the ENTIRE time, which I have to say was probably about eight songs and forty miles too many).

So, back in Sioux City, at her house, eating pizza and watching TV--and "The Heiress" comes on TCM, which is running all the Oscar winners since time began. This is the Olivia de Haviland and Montgomery Clift movie version of Henry James's WASHINGTON SQUARE -- see, I'm still on my current James kick -- and even though it isn't faithful at all to the novel, which I just read three days ago, it's a pretty good movie. Most of James's novels don't really make good movies (I'll get into that one of these days soon) but this one in particular struck me as really unsuitable -- it's so very nuanced and subtle, and everything depends on a tightly delineated non-action -- that it's understandable why the screenwriters made the character of Catherine Sloper much more outwardly emotional, and twisted the end of the film to give her a very active yet ultimately passive-aggressive revenge, which is completely not the case in James's novel.

In any event, having fun in Sioux City!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

So I'm on a Henry James kick...again

I picked up a copy of The New York Stories of Henry James the other day, stories selected and with an introduction by Colm Toibin, while I was wandering through the SF State University bookstore. Having read Toibin's THE MASTER about three years ago, I have become entranced by his devoted connection to James, and awed by his insights into both James's writing, and writing as a craft, an art, a way of life. I've read that book three times and will do so again soon. In large part, it helped me as I created the persona of James as he appears in the historical novel I just finished writing (about John Singer Sargent -- now looking for a publisher). And now, Toibin has a new, slim volume of essays he has written (or delivered) in the past, titled All A Novelist Needs -- a phrase from one of James's notebook entries, I believe. I am hooked, lined and sinkered. I love Henry James, always have since I read Portrait of a Lady at the age of 19 way back in my college days. My professor - Sue Shafer - was a James scholar, and fed my obsession with hers. I recently joined the Henry James Society, and hope to attend the annual conference one of these years. The best feeling I'm getting from reading both Toibin and James right now is a renewal of my need to write--perhaps a recognition that I've been dawdling, wasting time, not writing. As James said, "One has prayed and hoped and waited, in a word, to be able to work more...That is all I ask. Nothing else in the world."  Back to work now.