Thursday, May 17, 2012

My Living History Project

My daughter’s fourth-grade class is on a field trip today to the Eight Square School House in Ithaca where they’ll be experiencing a day of old-school school, having their knuckles rapped and wearing dunce caps and that kind of thing.  As soon as I received the memo about the suggested dress for the field trip – aprons and petticoats, sunbonnets and black ankle boots – I got a manic gleam in my eye.  Here was my chance to let my family values blossom into a concrete school project.  Here was a prime opportunity to start myself on the path to being the rabid historical-dress enthusiast I’ve always imagined I would ripen into in my old age.  Someday I will go the whole nine yards (or ten or twelve) and sew a Marietta Holley address, on an adult scale, complete with stays, shift, bustle and all.  But first – an 1892 child’s day dress, and not an authentic historical reproduction, but a kindly costume version from a modern pattern (Simplicity 2843) with accommodations made for ease and convenience.  Like a zipper.

I entered into the project with enthusiasm, and the joy I felt throughout the process was rather unlike the cursing and mumbling many of my sewing project devolve into.  I had an old tablecloth to repurpose, an eccentric floor-length table cover I had made to disguise my 90’s era (1990s, I mean) butcher-block table back in the days before we had a proper antique table in the dining room.  The butcher-block is now a kitchen island, and the tablecloth, a pale aqua cotton-linen blend, was ripe for reuse.

My other raw materials came from a Victorian sewing basket I bought at an estate sale in Mecklenburg two years ago.  The house it came from was a delicious time capsule of crumbling plaster and old wallpaper, with a very early brick hearth and warming ovens in the kitchen.  We found it packed to rafters with junk that had been new and useful more than a century ago, with a sprinkling of fifties Christmas decorations and few World War II-era letters on top.  The Chinese sewing basket was one of a matching set of three I found in an upstairs bedroom, sitting on top of an old cabinet sewing machine and across from a full bearskin rug.  They were encrusted with dust.

The basket proved to be full of old dress trimmings.  Some frugal lady, perhaps the mother of the person who had last occupied the house, had saved the valuable pieces of lace and ribbon from her dresses and petticoats and shifts when they wore out.  She had picked them off and rolled them up and pinned them neatly with tiny pins.  The lace on the shifts was too small and fussy to remove, so she just cut the yokes off the tops and saved them in a bundle for later.  Later never came, and she died before she could use the laces, and they came to me, still tightly wrapped up, as yellow-brown as parchment.

I washed the front and back yokes of one of the shifts, and I sat for a length of time that seemed inordinately long, at least the way we measure time nowadays, picking off the lace with a pair of embroidery scissors.  I needed my glasses, and even then the stitches holding the lace on were so small they were undetectable to the human eye.  When I got the first length unpicked, I pressed it and sewed it immediately onto the yoke of Poppy’s dress.  The piece of lace was exactly the right length to reach from one shoulder seam to the other without cutting or hemming.  How could this not be a sign from the beyond?  The soul of the frugal lady whose underwear lace I had in my hand was reaching out to bless me for using it at last.

This is a subject I plan to return to later, these stashes of fancy things passed on to me when the old ladies who saved them died before they could find a use for them.  I have countless doilies and napkins from my grandmother, a prodigious button collection from my stepmom’s great aunt, and a well-stocked bamboo sewing stand that came from another estate sale.  I could spend the rest of my lifetime finding good uses for all those precious bits and bobs, but I suspect I’m going to get more mileage out of writing about them instead.

The dress began to take shape.  When all the tiny lace was in place, and I was nearly blind from peering closely at it, I stepped back to get a better look.  Even with all that tiny trimming, the dress looked absolutely plain Jane, not like a Victorian confection but like a costume from a high-school production of The Music Man (trust me).

What was to be done?  Back into the basket for more lace.

The finishing touch was a long piece of crocheted lace that had obviously been on the hem of dress at one time, so that’s where I put it.  As I sat and sewed it on, I wallowed in living history lessons.  This is what a new dress meant for a nineteenth-century family of my class.  This is how much effort a nineteenth-century woman would expect to put in to get something worthwhile from her labors.  I guzzled these thoughts like fine wine.  Living history has a mixed reputation in the history world – Civil War reenactors have less intellectual clout than academic historians, say.  There was a good article by Lauren Collins in the New Yorker last November about Lucy Worsley, London’s Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces.  She has become famous for her historical reentactment shows on the BBC, during which she dresses up and tries out outmoded cooking methods and finds elements of Henry VIII’s diet in the grocery store.  Some people are critical of her living-history methods, fearing that she is in danger of turning history into a theme-park experience, leaving out the misery and the complexity.  I see the danger of this, and I take it to heart.  Truly old things are dirty and run-down and crazily foreign, not polished up to a Disney gloss.

Still, there is great, satisfying fun to be had in reenactment.  At first I thought my living-history imaginings were fuel for my historical novel-in-progress – what did a person wearing a dress like this think about, with the weight of that dress hanging on her shoulders (and the knowledge that if she blotted it with ink, she was in for another two weeks of lace picking and stitching)?  How did her dress inform her sense of self, and how did she express herself with the (very elaborate) possibilities of dress?

I have a new suspicion, however, that the other way around.  It’s my novel that’s serving my living history fascination.

Poppy is probably sitting on a hard bench as I write this, or maybe she’s snitching molasses cookies out of her lunch basket.  I can predict what some of her insights into Victorian life will be – long dresses are hot; petticoats are uncomfortable; you can’t run in ankle boots; hats are itchy.  I tried to give her as authentic an experience as I could.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Write like a kid

The crazy, word-hoarding pace of Nanowrimo does something to rewire the psychology of writing, and after churning out 50,000 words I didn’t really have time for because there wasn’t time to agonize over each one, I am getting a whiff of something I remember from a long time ago. I remember what it was like to write as a kid.

My first novel was a sprawling venture involving a parallel fairy universe/continent called “Toonvia.” A regular girl was falling asleep in her room (a small white bedroom with the cardboard rainbow from Spenser’s on the wall over the bookshelf) when a fairy came alive in a poster on the wall, and begged the girl to step through the poster into the other world. The fairy’s name, at least in early drafts, was a memorable hybrid I invented myself, and when I gave birth to my first child in 2002, my oldest friend was shocked to learn that her name was not Lilyamelody.

I wrote that novel like crazy, all the time. I carried a notebook around with me everywhere in fifth grade, and there was some kind of dire warning on the inside front cover written in all caps – something like “IF LOST, PLEASE RETURN TO THE FOLLOWING ADDRESS. IT’S A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.” My afore-mentioned friend told me then that this was a bit much, and for the first time I understood that being too earnest was not an asset. Even in elementary school.

Tragically, every single draft of that novel is now lost. I hope when I die I am offered a chance to view a movie of all the unremarked moments in life when things were lost – the exact moment when my mother accidentally put that notebook into the trash, or when I ripped out the pages and put them in a folder which was never seen again. There are plenty of moments like that to review – what happened to the pair of opals someone gave my dad and I used to keep in my jewelry box? Where did the burglar who stole my rings in graduate school put them? What was I doing when my necklace of jet beads fell off and was lost? And where is it now?

I have only the soft-focus memory of the pages in my first novel notebook to remember what was in it. I know there was a war going on in Toonvia between the good fairy folk and a host of witches and monsters who lived on the other side of the continent. The human girl (and what was her name? Probably Melanie.) was welcomed into fairyland with a full makeover and a feast, a la The Wizard of Oz. I remember that scene well because when I gave it to a girl to read at summer camp, she ended up only reading one side of each page in my double-sided manuscript. I figured out the mistake when she became very upset that there was a father pixie being served up at the welcome feast, but when I pointed out what she had done, she declined to go back and re-read the whole thing. Imagine!

I wrote and re-wrote that novel all the way through junior high. It evolved into a conventional fantasy adventure novel inspired by Anne McCaffrey (who has recently died, I was sad to learn). There was some kind of stone that had to be obtained. There were two kids sent on a quest. The boy could make things appear by magic when he played his flute. I wrote all summer in little coded notebooks and on my mother’s typewriter. I wrote while we were up in Pulaski, declining to go down to the river to swim so I could get some work in on my character sketches and chapter outlines. I made maps and kept lists of names. I also had separate sections in my notebook for other pursuits, like the “Philosophy” section in which I was building a taxonomy of every possible kind of conflict known to humanity. Don’t ask me! Those synapses have long since been pruned.

At some point the novel fizzled out, and what I remember was that I became more interested in physical descriptions of the winsome hero with dark curly hair than I was in plotting – he was a dreamboat, and (wouldn’t you know it) he exactly resembled the teenage TV star I was in love with at the time. So out went the era of literary intensity and in came that other era, the one in which Ophelia needs to be revived.

For fifteen years I wrote hardly any fiction. I signed up for poetry in college, thinking that I only had a prayer of finishing something if it was short. Poems are exquisitely short. I could write and rewrite them ten times in an afternoon and still have time for a two-foot high stack of Russian homework.

Academia is a pretty good party killer when it comes to unbridled creativity. My critical faculties increased to the point that I knew it was embarrassing to write. Still, I never quite made it to the other camp. During my last gasp of graduate school, at a conference on Russian women writers I organized, I gave a paper on the poet Karolina Pavlova. Afterward, a kind professor from another campus said, “You know, that was a writer’s paper, not an academic’s paper.” Secretly, I took it as a compliment.

It takes an exercise like Nanowrimo to force the imagination back into the mindset of writing like a kid – writing all the time, every minute, wool gathering, making leaps, forging ahead constantly. I didn’t waste time doing laundry and dishes when I was a kid, either. In January I can begin the process of agonizing over the fifty thousand new words, one at a time. Meanwhile I am going to devise a process of hypnotizing myself so that when I sit down to write, mentally, I’m ten.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Paranormal Investigations

Who are these winsome frontier lassies?

I did a lot of digging around in old things when I was in Pulaski at the end of the summer, and there are a number of unsolved mysteries I have yet to unravel. One particularly fertile place for excavations is in Great Great Uncle Richard's trunk, which serves most of the time as a tablecloth draping stand in the back room at the Brick House. It's full of all the special things he saved from his time out in Leadville, Colorado designing mining works and making friends.

I realized, as I was sneezing through the mildew and the dust and the remains of century-old weevils, that what I really wanted were not the facts. I want to get past the facts to the juicy stories, the ones that don't make it into family bibles and the letters home. Who, for instance, is this person, whose woolen long-john clad likeness shows up in the photo archive in the top tray of the trunk (just inches away, I might add, from all the photos of his dear old sis back home in Pulaski)?

Those fancy ladies out in Leadville, Colorado were a frisky lot, posing in their underwear -- but you have to admit, it is cold out there. A lady can't be too careful of her health.

I am also hot on the trail of this raven-haired beauty:

Her face shows up on several warped pieces of cardstock in the collection, and her signature appears on the bottom of a heartsick letter, written after a weekend rendez-vous that had to come to an end.

Is this the same person, in a later photo?

The interesting part of the story is the part that gets erased (as when Great Grandma Mahaffy burned the half-literate letters that went with the photos at the top of this post "Deer Hart, Wen yew gonna come and see mee?"), or the part that was never committed to writing in the first place. Communicating with the other side takes a little imagination.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Migraine Interlude

Good nighty night, ladies and jets -- I mean, gents. I am so good happy to speak to you this day on the change purse of the Headache People. In Washington. From the tingly part to the shame labyrinth -- I can make it a migraine for you. That is to say, I can help you get migraine too.

Remember that book about the guy who was really really smart, so smart he could see the cells in the flowers? And then he got really dumb again, so dumb he forgot his name was Algernon? No wait -- Charles. Algie was the mouse, right? Anyway, it's like that.

Or like have you ever tried to sleep over at your cousin's or aunt's or roommate's place on one of those blow-up thingies down low on the ground close to a big spiderweb, and then in the morning you are on the hardness in a sinking sinkhole with covers choking you? That's it too.

Maybe you are going up in a log ride and your tummy is already boiling from the cotton candy you shouldn't have eaten for breakfast, but up you go, chunkity chunk chunk -- and you know you aren't going to die, but it seems like you might, only the chunkers under you chunk out and you slide down the back side of the flume, not going the right way, so maybe you do die. That's what happens to your thinking parts. Not just your thinking parts, but the whole bowling ball up there, and your jugular vessel is the chunking machine.

Does that make sense? I had some powderpoint slides but I can't get this thing to work, so you'll have to follow me through the frabjous part.

Good! Now is the question asking time. Hello there! Hmm. Mmm hmmm. I'm nodding. Yow, that smarts. Excuse me -- see that long green thingy over there, off stage, the one with the pillows and the hard bits on the end? Is that clean enough to lie down on or what?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

By Request

Comments have been streaming in (Can't see them? Make sure you have your preferences set to "View Invisible Comments.") about how William Blake's picture of Cronos eating his children is not a very nice "summer vacation" picture for the blog. Cronos seemed like a good idea at the time, and it isn't always the crazed daddy I identify with. But onto other seasons! This season I've been digging up new material. Cemeteries in the North Country, it turns out, are treasure troves of Victorian names, and some of them are real howlers.

Apparently some families had a real poetic gift for choosing evocative names, and I'm sure they knew very well the provenance of the names they chose, internet or no internet. Even in temperance-friendly northern New York, you just have to let your kids be their own people.

Modern-day children with funky names are a great help in spotting the real treasures.

But some of the stones in these tiny rural cemeteries are so old, the names have long been obscured by lichens and mosses, as if the dead are so fashionably ensconced in the afterlife they no longer need the living to care for them.

Whoops! On closer inspection, this gravestone belongs to my Grandma Guthrie, who is alive and well and always did believe in planning ahead. You wouldn't want your children messing around with your final resting place. In their grief, they might get uppity ideas.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Muse?

Literary inspiration does exist, only it isn't the divine gift you read about. The muse isn't a comely nymph with classical features, nor even an immortal roller skating babe (before the Classics, there was Xanadu).

Here are some of the things I did yesterday to work myself into a literary state of mind: sort a stack of mail two feet high, pay bills, write a letter about property taxes, pick up groceries, organize tools, throw away garden seeds "Packed for 2005", wash dishes, help with a report on "America the Beautiful" and change three filthy HEPA prefilters. Sound inspiring? Once the kids were in bed I did some light stretching while dipping into an excellent book about health by Andrew Weil.

And then, KABOOM, the clouds parted and I had a genuine Literary Thought. It was a thought in the shape of a poem, something to do with what Andrew Weil was saying about Venus and Saturn, about the balance between the generative, feminine Aphrodite and the destructive, masculine Cronos (devourer of his own children).
I couldn't remember the last time I'd been able to see an idea for a poem, but there was no time to stop, as I was galloping ahead. My novel was on the horizon -- the chapter I've been working on in fits and starts, the scene that still needs some strong glue to hold it together, and the deadline looming next month. I had two good ideas about things to add -- no, make that three ideas! -- and in a moment I had blasted right past making notes and was writing actual dialog. Not just dialog, but funny dialog! I could not be stopped.

It was in the middle of the hilarious, scene-clinching conversation that I realized the left side of my head was cracking open like a volcanic fissure and that I mildly wanted to throw up. I leaped off the page where I was writing and started scribbling down observations on the back of another sheet. Migraine was dawning. How did it happen? Did I think so hard I tweaked my brain? Did the neural pathways required for literary thought happen to be the same ones prone to swelling? Did writing increase circulation in the grey matter so rapidly it caused a short circuit?

I dragged myself to the medicine cabinet and then got back into bed with my notebook. Before I collapsed on the pillow I had finished the dialog, outlined the next book review I have to do, and made two pages of notes on important plot questions for the second half of my novel -- which surprisingly had a lot to do with the book for the review. What an amazing coincidence.

My husband turned out to be the only person thinking clearly. When he came in to bed, he listened patiently to my chatter for ten minutes before observing, in his calm way, that literary thoughts are not the cause of the migraine, they are one of the symptoms. "It's just part of the manic lead-up," he said, before turning off the light.

My delusions of grandeur went hissing off into the darkness like a leaky balloon. This was not inspiration -- this was prodrome. The lack of blood to the brain was producing literary thoughts, not the reverse. Were they real ideas? Would they still be there, on the page, when I recovered from the migraine (and the side effects of the medication)?

Eric put in his two cents. "You have to take what you can get," he said, and was asleep in thirty seconds.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Marietta Holley: The Song

Do you know the low feeling, about a third of the way through a big project (a novel, say -- or a wallpapering job, or a knitted sweater), when the pile of glittering good intentions with which you began your effort seems to be sifting down into nothing and your stamina is at a low ebb? I've been trying to unstick myself from such a moment. I've been reading Marietta Holley's own words, and getting up my enthusiasm to know more about the suffrage movement and what exactly Susan B. Anthony said and when. Today, in my noodling, I found "The Ballad of Marietta Holley", courtesy of the students at South Jefferson Central High, in Adams:

"Oh Marietta, I need to know you.
Oh Marietta, why don't I know you?
I would have thought they would have told me of you in school.
Oh Marietta, I need to find you."

Can you believe it? They read my mind. Click here to see the affecting video, complete with photographs from the Watertown Historical Society. You may not need your hankie, but I sure did.