Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Books as comfort food

When under stress, I return to the sure safety of old favorites. Grilled cheese sandwiches, blueberry muffins. Peanut butter cookies, with pressed fork patterns on the tops. Really good scrambled eggs. And this morning, Laurie Colwin's book of essays, Home Cooking (Knopf 1988). Yesterday, a short story collection from Sarah Orne Jewett. Last week, a few Georgette Heyer novels. Before that, a visit with Louise Andrews Kent and her Mrs. Appleyard. All re-reads five times over, of the loved and the known - they never fail to bring a measure of relief, and a righting of a temporarily wavering compass.

Sarah Orne Jewett, in particular. Her prose is steeped with all things Maine, yet she still manages to take me away completely. And not just into a far past. As I've said before, not much happens in her stories, at least on the surface. They contain only a few characters, perhaps an incident or two on which all things turn, much quiet country description, but also a fresh immediacy and a precise noticing of human emotion that never seems to change, despite the passing of a century or two. One of the best stories in this particular collection (The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, Anchor 1989, the softcover with the perfect detail of a Fairfield Porter painting on the cover) is Martha's Lady, which opens thusly:

"One day, many years ago, the old Judge Pyne house wore an unwonted look of gayety and youthfulness. The high-fenced green garden was bright with June flowers. Under the elms in the large shady front yard you might see some chairs placed near together, as they often used to be when the family were all at home and life was going on gayly with eager talk and pleasure-making; when the elder judge, the grandfather, used to quote that great author, Dr. Johnson, and say to his girls, 'Be brisk, be splendid, and be public.'" (p.244)

How could you not want to read on, after that? I defy anyone to read this story and not cry at the end, from sadness and joy in equal amounts together. Anyone with a tender heart, that is (which must be all of us, secretly, mustn't it?). Her stories are perfect aides to contemplation of one's good fortune in modern life, no matter what is happening. I always come away from her words feeling like a righted ship. I could say the same for any of my comforts, in their own ways.

I would love to hear what others consider their favorite comfort foods, either of the readable or the merely edible varieties... what do you turn to and re-turn to? I know, here I am talking about food again, but it can't be helped. The house still carries the scent of those peanut butter cookies I made a few hours ago.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Order versus chaos

Symmetry, proportion, order = what I yearn for when chaos reigns. Week four of renovations and I had to get out of the house, so midweek I spent a sunny morning in Castine, sketching around town while Ryan was working. I say sketching, but really I just wandered slowly about looking at architectural details and savoring their classical harmonies. Castine, like many other coastal Maine enclaves, is currently dusting off and preparing for the return of its summer inhabitants. This means old houses are crawling with local landscapers, painters, roofers, you name it. Lawns are being mowed for the first time. Tulips are dutifully opening. Clapboards are being scraped. Chimneys are receiving new mortar. Many yards contain nary a dead leaf.

All that maintenance, and yet some houses there seem to exist in a state of perpetual perfection. A few in particular I can't imagine paint daring to flake off a single piece of trim, ever, despite the wind that can howl up into the harbor. Ancient they are, with lovely details. Ryan says he's heard of a photography book about the doorways of Castine, but I can't find mention of it. So here are a few snapshots of my own favorite front doors in town.

This one is quite small and has dear old handforged bootscrapers set into the granite steps:

Next, I am a fan of fanlights. And wisteria, or whatever clinging vine is climbing the trellis:

One red door in a town of the whitest white houses - how brave! It goes with its holly hedge:

I love the twelve-over-twelve windows on this stern beauty, and the rounded fanlight panes:

Lastly, I sat across the street from this elegant place for an hour, watercolor paper on my lap, pan of pigment on the ground beside me. I loved the shadows and the warm yellow clapboards. The shutters are that very dark green that appears black in shadow, and not quite so black in full sun. My painting fell flat, but I might try again, in oils. Perhaps if the inhabitants take the storm door away for the summer. Or when the flowers are in bloom.

After a surfeit of architecture I sat on the beach and stared out to sea (one of my special talents - years of practice, I've had), and made a few slightly more successful watercolors of the view down the bay. Then came home much refreshed and ready to face the FINAL WEEK of building. Now here I sit, surrounded by paint chips, thinking how ironic it is that a painter can't decide what colors to paint her studio. I must choose, this weekend. All those clean shades of white in Castine have me thinking. And yet, so many places there are vacant in winter. I think I need something warmer, but something that won't distract from or fight with whatever I happen to have on the easel. I am leaning toward cream. Hodge the Cat approves.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Divine landscapes

A spring garden with nothing planted in it yet is a beautiful sight. New England folklore says plant your peas on Patriots' Day if you want to harvest them on the Fourth of July. I'll get busy with that. Tomorrow. Because I have declared today a rest day. Ryan is of course out running a road race, but I am here writing and eating oatmeal with raspberries and I don't plan on doing much else today. I might take a walk.

And read. I've been slowly savoring a challenging and beautiful book sent to me by a reader from overseas (thank you, dear R), written by one of my current literary loves, Ronald Blythe. The book is Divine Landscapes: A Pilgrimage Through Britain's Sacred Places (Viking 1986), and in it Blythe travels through scenes of religious literary history, tracking William Langland, John Bunyan, George Herbert, and others, while describing the effects of physical terrain on their writings and spiritual lives. The chapter on Bunyan and The Pilgrim's Progress is particularly fine; entitled How to Make a Pilgrimage Without Leaving Home, it says of Bunyan's hero Christian:

"...his life has remained an astonishing lesson on how an ordinary person can intensify the home scene. Don't get bogged down in it.... Get up and go to the visible heights of love." (p.121)

This book is full of such fine writing. I didn't want the chapter about George Herbert to end. It made me wish that Blythe had written an entire biography of him. Blythe quotes from Herbert's book Outlandish Proverbs, after writing the finest definition of a proverb I've come across:

"...a proverb had its resonance. It was a statement of plain truth which hung around in one's hearing, setting up an intricate kind of thoughtfulness." (p.150)

One of Herbert's proverbs reads: "Building is sweet impoverishing." Oh my, yes. The local proverb about planting peas pales by comparison to some of Herbert's. Many of his are still common parlance today, "Living well is the best revenge," et al.

Speaking of building (and impoverishing), Sunday is also our builder's day of rest. The house is blissfully quiet. It's still too early to plant, even if just by one day. But I've been out admiring my handiwork in the gardens. Here is our little vegetable garden, ready to receive seeds and seedlings. The chives in the foreground are huge, and the forsythia is in full bloom:

Backing up a bit, this is the herb garden I finished yesterday. Once that lumber was gone and the stone set into place, it looked like it had always been there:

A close-up of the herb garden - each bed is about five by seven feet. In it we have more chives, sage, thyme, a tiny tarragon, and some anise hyssop just beginning to show green. I'm going to fill the center with basil and lemon basil, and have flowers over in the right bed, as yet undetermined, maybe nasturtiums with creeping thyme around the edges:

I love the gardens at this early stage of spring, they remind me of carpet pages from medieval illuminated manuscripts, so square and clean and plain against the wildly greening grass. I'll end with this today, from the Blythe book (p.152), a bit of George Herbert's perfect verse about his own beloved gardens:

Nothing we see, but means our good,
As our delight, or as our treasure;
The whole is, either our cupboard of food,
or cabinet of pleasure.

Friday, April 16, 2010


What to do when there's nothing to do

What a week. I am not yet at the end of my rope, but there it is, in plain sight. Attic renovations continue, and the house is too noisy and messy to get much done as far as my usual round of contemplative activities goes. That, and our car is in the shop, after stranding us for the very first time ever at these nice people's yard sale. There were many cartons of books at the sale, which is why we stopped - I even ran into one of my favorite antiquarian booksellers there, he stopped too, for the same reason - but the books were uniformly terrible. We called Triple A. And waited. They never arrived. A handy fellow overheard us talking and helped get the car started so we could limp home. We finally got it to the garage yesterday. All that is to say that I am housebound for now, and anxious about what the mechanic will be telling me later today about the state of our vehicle. Ryan is carpooling to work with a friend. It's too cold to paint outside. I'm too tired to go running. I'm stranded in rural Maine. Really the only thing left to do is garden.

It's actually too cold to garden, too, but not to prepare to garden. So this week I've cleaned out the vegetable beds and ripped deeply-buried grass roots out from under the stone that surrounds them. Another week or two and I can start planting. And my big spring project is well underway: expanding the little herb bed into something larger and more attractive. When we moved here it had pressure-treated lumber around it, which was never good-looking in the first place, and has not aged well in the last two years. Yesterday I removed all that ugly stuff, weeded out around it, uprooted a lot of sod to double the size of the bed, and dug a small trench around the edges. Then Ryan and I went for a walk in the woods behind the house, where loads of beautiful old fieldstone reside. Decades ago this house had an ell and a giant barn, both of which had fieldstone foundations. This stone is now scattered around the edges of our acre. We found more than enough to make a stone wall around the herb bed. I can't lift most of them, but I can pry them along, and roll them into place.

It's satisfying work. And what more fitting thing to do right now, than roll stones around like Sisyphus.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I've got the neat freak blues

We are two weeks in to this attic renovation at home and the house is a freaking shambles. Which means my obsessive-compulsive tendencies toward neatness are stretched pretty tight right now. But light gleams at the end of the tunnel, as the third floor takes shape. We have insulation, walls, subfloor, lights, outlets, and heat. Flooring, trim, another window, and paint are still to come. Perhaps another week and it will be finished. First, I think I will sleep for a week. (Why am I this tired, even though I'm not the one doing all the work?) And next, dust everything off and move in.

A painter I admire once said that painting is not a spectator sport and I quite agree, so it will be very fine to have this private place to work, hidden at the top of the house. The finished room will be thirty feet long, by about twelve feet wide, with a good high ceiling. Big storage closets built in under the eaves, a picture window for light, a dormer window for the view, a little place for a desk and chair, but mostly just open space, so I can set up my easel and table, and actually get far enough away from my paintings, as I make them. It's not an art myth, painters do really work on their paintings for a while, then walk far away from them and take a look, then go in close again to get back to work. This one does, anyway. And for years I've never had the space (except when I'm painting outside) to really back up far enough to get that good long look. Soon I'll have thirty feet. In just another week or so.

I'm trying to decide if I want to take any books up there at all. On the whole, I think not. Because once you let a few in the door, others inevitably follow. This I know.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


The best of intentions

Remember when I mentioned that I was planning on culling my books? I mean, the book room here is so full that my mother is gently reminding me that the sills under the north side of the house may not support all that weight forever. Well, I thought about starting yesterday. Really buckling down. But instead Ryan and I got out of the house and somehow I came home with a grocery bag full of... books. I don't know how it happened. I am doomed, DOOMED!

Friday, April 09, 2010


Ruined by reading?

Right before I read Susan Hill's book, I read another book about books I've seen knocking around for years, but somehow never got around to until now: Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Beacon 1997). Reading these two books in such close proximity made me aware of their similarities - both written by intelligent, opinionated, literate women, both steeped in all things books, both looking deep into their reading pasts while also taking place in the present day. They made me want to write my own. I enjoyed both, though the only thing I didn't like about Schwartz's book was its title. Is it supposed to be ironic? Because she wasn't ruined by reading. In fact reading was her lifeline. Although I realize that yesterday I did refer to book-love as an affliction. To which Schwartz says:

""...reading is not a disabling affliction. I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing. Can I go back to my books now?" (p.15)

Hmm. Later on she worries that she often can't remember what she's read, which made me smile with recognition, and she ponders the real reason behind reading, something intangible and far beyond simply gathering and retaining information:

"...in reading, the body is still. Indeed what reading teaches, first and foremost, is how to sit still for long periods and confront time head-on. The dynamism is all inside, an exalted, spiritual exercise so utterly engaging that we forget time and mortality along with all of life's lesser woes, and simply bask in the everlasting present. So I see, finally, why it hardly matters whether I remember the contents of the book. Mere information is nothing compared to this silent flurry." (pp.115-116)

I don't know if I've ever read a better description of the interior state reading induces, the ephemeral state that I, for one, am addicted to. So, reading. Affliction or saving grace? Both?

Thursday, April 08, 2010


Acquired tastes

Books about books have been casting out lures to me for much of my life, lures I have not resisted, or even wanted to resist. Reading them comforts me. Other booklovers are out there, suffering from this same affliction. And as I accumulate more books and discover they need to be tended to, dealt with, decided upon, lived with, cared for, and I don't know what-all, and on top of all that, dusted regularly, and, oh yeah, read, I realize that it truly is an affliction. I am coming to know the weight of books. Their spiritual and physical heft. This presents a conundrum, because as I grow older, I want to be lighter. So, while I love my books, I want to live with less of them. Fewer, and better. Stuff of all kinds is shifting around our house during this construction project, and I feel a big book sort coming on to help lighten the load. A cull. How dreadful.

In her latest book, Howard's End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home (Profile 2009), author Susan Hill faces her own houseful of books and realizes she hasn't read many of the ones she wishes to read, and re-read. So, she sets herself a year of no new book purchases, in order to read what she already has. I can't imagine being that stringent with myself, but I can certainly sympathize, so the book makes for interesting reading. I picked up a secondhand copy at the recommendation of a reader I trust, having read no other books by Hill except a lovely collection of her gardening essays. But once I saw the dust jacket, I knew I was doomed. Just look at it. Books about books are bad enough, but when they also have pictures of books on their covers I know I am doubly doomed. Must Own.

The book contains a series of short essays about her bookish loves and hates, ranged over her year of self-imposed restraint. She has me with her immediately, as a reader, because she begins with The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers. I am on her side. Then she loses me an instant later by saying that in the other Sayers books "...the Wimsey-Harriet Vane love story is embarrassing..." (p.15). I myself am happily romantic, gullible, and naive, so I do not find this love story embarrassing, in fact just the opposite. This little episode, early on, serves as a barometer for the rest of Hill's book. I was with her, so often - she loves Patrick Leigh Fermor, and some of Bruce Chatwin - and then she lost me completely and utterly - she cannot read Jane Austen, doesn't see the point, and name-calls James Lees-Milne, even though she loves his early diaries. But she had me again, with terrific chapter titles such as Never Got Around to It, Don't Like the Look of It, Couldn't Get Beyond Page Ten and Other Poor Excuses, which begins:

"There is no reason why most of the books I own but have never actually read should be more or less in one place. They just are. Maybe they quietly gravitated into the sitting room one by one, to sob and huddle together for warmth." (p.63)

So good. But she lost me again completely, by writing such things as "Bookplates are for posers..." (p.124) and "Antiquarian booksellers, whose trade is in books but who rarely seem to read them..." (p.126) Ouch! Then I came back to her way of thinking: "Books should pay rent." (p.200) The whole book was like this, a back-and-forth describing her highly personal reading selection and strong opinions about books and book people. Her own, often divergent from the tastes of others (mine, say, or yours), which is as it should be. She describes her house, full of her books, after all.

Reading this was like consuming a dish with one ascerbic ingredient, added for piquancy. Balsamic vinegar? Capers? Strong taste, with bite, and often delicious. If you enjoy that kind of thing, as I do.

Saturday, April 03, 2010


Full steam ahead!

Release the hounds! What a crazy-busy week, everything seems to be happening at once, after what was, on the exterior at least, a long quiet winter of a whole lot of nothing. The big news around here is that we found a carpenter who has started work on our attic renovation. We decided to move ahead and try to get it done, spend that tax refund, live for today, since this great builder is available now. I'm so excited I can hardly stand it. The sweet sound of a nail gun and radial arm saw is echoing from the third floor, as we speak. Music to my ears. It feels so good to invest in this place, and in myself as a painter. And yet, spending money makes me a bit twitchy, to be honest, so I haven't been sleeping well. But more importantly, I have been painting well and have a few exhibits planned for this summer. All good.

Between paintings I inhaled the Warhol Diaries. The editor, Pat Hackett, took down the diary entries every weekday, over the phone from Andy, for years. Some were on tape. She says in the introduction that the diary was originally 20,000 pages. She edited it down to over 800 - didn't want it to sound too much like a laundry list of names and places. So, if Andy went to five parties in one night, she narrowed it down to one or two, etc. 20,000 pages! I want the laundry list! All the parties! Unedited! More, more!

Reading this huge book again and loving it so much made me realize, more than ever, that I really must face the fact that I have an odd sense of literary discernment. Which is to say, I may have no sense of literary discernment. Because whatever book I happen to be reading at a given time becomes my new favorite book. And of course I love to talk about how wonderful it is. And then someone may actually go out and buy a copy of said book, and attempt to read it, and find it to be not one's cup of tea in the least. I mean, I love Warhol and his weird diaries, but then, as a teenager, I was up here in rural Maine absolutely glued to Michael Musto's great New York nightlife articles in Details magazine. That to me was really the news. So, Warhol spent time with some of the same people I read about back then in Details. (Long before it became a men's style magazine, I should say.) Old home week! He even mentions Michael Musto, which made me smile. So, all that is to say caveat emptor. In case anyone takes anything I say here seriously. Onward...

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